The Straits Times

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


As a kid, I'd mail my essays and drawings to "1000 Toa Payoh North", handwriting every single envelope. A select few of my works will be published in either 大拇指 (Thumbs Up, a Chinese language newspaper catered to primary school kids) or in a section of 联合早报 (Lianhe Zaobao) on Sundays. No - I wasn't particularly great in Mandarin, but the English publications at Singapore Press Holdings didn't have a section that featured children's works.

They'd occasionally mail me royalties (amounting to $10, $15 or $20) for having my works published. I'd be delighted.

And being able to work at that same address as a journalist intern during the most recent summer break has been quite the dream.

Sure, it wasn't a bed of roses - one can probably imagine the sheer pressure of writing for Singapore's most widely circulated newspaper, having to ensure that you get all the facts right, not misquote anyone, and of course, accurately capture the news point. Yet, I can safely say that I enjoyed every single day I spent in The Straits Times newsroom, even the time when I worked for nineteen hours straight.

Now let's backtrack a little. I shall be completely honest in this post because I believe that my experiences can potentially help someone else make a more informed decision, and because I think a lot of the SPH internship experience blog posts floating around on the Internet are fairly outdated. 

So how did I end up working for SPH? I applied for their mid-term journalism scholarship, and after a writing test and an interview, they offered me an internship. I had initially planned on focusing on O'Week related stuff during the summer period, but I'm immensely thankful to my friends who  understood how important this was to me, and covered when I was gone at times. 

All that aside, the first time I stepped into the newsroom was surreal. I was greeted by framed newspaper articles of memorable events in history, huge print-outs of sections of the newspaper hanging from the wall, screens at the "hub" that flashed out breaking news, and the editors of the paper (okay - I'll admit, we were always the most excited to see Sumiko Tan in the flesh haha).  

Right from the start, expectations were laid out for us - see your supervisor before going for any assignment; always always bring your notebook along with you; ask the PR person for as much details first; keep asking questions - no question is ever stupid; email your story over to the online team 5 mins after the end of the event (important due to the emergence of social and online media); fact check fact check fact check, there's no way we can afford publishing something erroneous. 

I didn't expect it at all, but interns were treated like real journalists and given actual responsibilities in the company, which I was very thankful for. I was honestly quite surprised at the level of trust they had in us. We were assigned to cover events on our own without any guidance at all (my first assignment on my third day was a ministerial event, and I went there with a photographer colleague). Being constantly pushed out of my comfort zone allowed me to learn so much in the process. 

Every single day working there was exciting. Interns weren't assigned a beat, and covered every topic from transport, education and health, to community causes and human stories. I definitely can't encapsulate my experiences in a single blog post, but every single article I wrote (which you can read here) has a backstory behind the actual story itself.  

I shall list some of the more memorable moments of my internship here, mostly for my own archival purposes:
  • Waiting for wild boars to appear at Tuas bus interchange (the most ulu bus interchange in Singapore, I daresay). 
  • Going back to NUS Business School for an interview and trying to appear all professional and distant, only to have the school's PR representative ask me, "so which year are you in?" because they already did a search and knew that I am a student from the school.
  • Writing a full-page article for the Science column even though I failed my science subjects all through secondary school. 
  • Drinking the OG Singapore Sling on the job, because it was used during the shoot for my feature on Raffles Hotel. 
  • Staking out for six hours at Clarke Quay awaiting a corpse to emerge from the Singapore River (nothing emerged during my time there).
  • Camping at shopping mall car parks around the island waiting for eco-friendly cars to drive by. 
  • Having cute mini-vans that send all employees home safely if they are working after 11pm (yes, it's super cute - the drivers end up remembering where you stay after you take the transport once or twice) and knocking my head twice when boarding and exiting. 
There were many other intense experiences, but some of which deal with sensitive issues I shall not mention here. One particular day was pretty crazy for me though, where I worked from 6am till 1am the next day. It was Friday and I had three articles due for publication on Saturday, Sunday and Monday - and I didn't want to come back over the weekend to file them. 

One of these articles was a Sunday Times feature, and there was a lot of scheduling conflicts and unconfirmed details. To add on to it, no photographers were available for the shoot because it was Racial Harmony Day that day - so I told my editor, "I sometimes take photos as a hobby," which was a huge risk in itself. 

On Friday morning, I headed to the interviewee's house to take photos and videos of her, rushed off to a diary event of a mosque's reopening and went back to the office to file three stories (usually we file one a day). It was madness. The next day, my mosque article was published. On Sunday, I was greeted by my story and the photo I took on the front page of the Sunday Times. The story even gained viral attention online as well, with over three thousand shares. And on Monday, my other article on eco-friendly parking lots got to the second page of the Prime section. Worth it. 

It was undeniably an exhausting nine weeks, yet it's probably one of the most - if not the most - fulfilling experiences of my life and I seriously wish I got to do it for a longer time. I sorely miss chasing and writing stories. 

Sure, many Singaporeans may diss The Straits Times, its management and its supposed government ties (I have my own take on this, but you can ask me in real life for my opinion), but I personally felt that it was a pretty nurturing environment. Copyeditors were strict with our standard of English, yet offered praise when you turned in a great story, and editors who were concerned whenever you stayed in the office for too long - "go home please", "take half day off tomorrow", "come in later tomorrow", "go get dinner", they'd say. 

According to a copyeditor whom I bumped into and spoke to after my internship was over, the morale in the newsroom was a lot lower than it was say, 10 years ago. The emergence of online media outlets has put immense pressure on the management, and from my very limited perspective of the office, having to churn out daily content didn't leave much room or time for them to innovate and try new things - yet, they are still trying. 

Mainstream media in Singapore has much room to improve but I left the newsroom with a whole load of respect and appreciation for the people that make the paper.

As for me, what happened at the end of it all? The internship has affirmed what I already knew - that I love telling stories, and I really don't get sick of using writing as a medium to do so. Day in, day out, writing and writing and writing, yet I was always fueled by energy and enthusiasm. It was never boring. Never. 

In terms of the scholarship, I was given the opportunity to go for the final interview. But it was clear to everyone in the room, myself included, that I was and still am not ready at this point of my life to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to journalism, or more specifically to SPH as a company. There are many factors, but on a personal level my interests have also diversified after attending university and being exposed to other industries. Journalism remains a huge love and passion of mine, and it breaks my heart that the field isn't given enough room to flourish in Singapore. 

It would take more than one person to make a difference to the industry - for example, making a difference to media laws or revolutionizing the way stories are told in the current Internet landscape. When the time comes, hopefully I'll find myself doing what I believe I'm meant to do. 

I am definitely humbled to have gotten the chance to speak to the Editor-in-Chief though, and to have shared my thoughts about the future of the industry. Above all, the entire internship has been an amazing experience no less, and I'm grateful to have experienced everything first-hand. Seven-year-old Li Yin will surely be thrilled at this - why, even 20-year-old Li Yin is. 
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