By Ooi Kee Beng for Penang Economic Monthly, August 2011
Standfirst: Leaving one place does not mean that you have a definite destination in mind. For Tan Thean Peng, the conditions of a journalistic career saw him working for a long line of employers throughout the region, from Sydney to Bangkok to Hong Kong. Finally, he ends up owning his own custom publishing firm, and thinking that his old home town, Penang, is not a bad option for a retiree.
The Straits Echo was Tan Thean Peng’s first employer. He joined as reporter in 1978 after finishing his A-levels at St Xavier’s Institution only to discover that he could not gain entrance into local universities. The NEP quota system was already in place.
But soon, working in Penang felt too constraining. And so this Pulau Tikus native left for Kuala Lumpur, to continue as a sub-editor with The Star. He was 20 years old.
But after five years working as a sub-editor in the Klang Valley, Kuala Lumpur began to feel limiting as well. A holiday trip to Hong Kong got him dreaming about working there. So, when the Hong Kong Standard made him an offer in 1985, he could not refuse. He did not stay at the Standard for long however and he soon moved over to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). This doubled his pay.
He became editor of The Young Post, which was produced for schools. This edition was crucial to the Post, accounting for as much as 40% of total circulation. After a year, he transferred to the Features desk as deputy editor. His time at the Post was a happy one. But he was soon attracted to a trade publication owned by Singapore’s Asian Business Press. He stayed there for four lucrative years.
Now, 1997 was not all that far off, when Hong Kong would revert to China. Oriental Daily News, one of the big Hong Kong Chinese papers, decided that there was room for a third English newspaper, and established Eastern Express. Peng was approached, and decided to join the new outfit. But that didn’t work out. The management was Chinese while the editorial team was largely made up of Westerners. The cultural clash was bad and Peng was caught in the middle. After one horrific year, he decided to leave.
Asia Inc was starting up in Bangkok at that time, but despite an offer from them, Peng decided to migrate to Australia instead. This was 1995. Just before leaving with only his luggage and nothing else, Peng got news that Singapore’s Straits Times was establishing an office in Sydney. He contacted them and was immediately offered a job as sub-editor.
Things were suddenly falling nicely into place, and Peng bought a single business-class flight to Sydney, determined to live the high life down under. He bought a house, bought a car, and quickly fell into serious debt. The high Australian taxes meant that he could not possibly work his way out of his loans.
By 2000, the solution soon became clear to him. He had to move back to Hong Kong, where taxes were much lower. Finance Asia was starting operations in Hong Kong at that time, and wanted him as their chief sub-editor. This was not a dream job, but it was Peng’s only way out of the financial hole he had dug for himself. Back in Hong Kong, he was immediately offered a job at the Hong Kong iMail, a revamp of the Hong Kong Standard, and owned by Sing Tao. He reimbursed Finance Asia for travel and accommodation costs, and for trouble caused; and decided to join the new paper. iMail turned out to be as bad as the now defunct Eastern Express was, and Peng left after several months to accept a six-month assignment in Bangkok to help rejuvenate Business Times there.
Two openings for Peng to follow up at this time were a position as North Asia Correspondent for The Star, and another with SCMP’s Special Reports section. The Post gave him a much better offer. The Star was still very Malaysia-centric, he felt, while the Post was more outwardly oriented. And so, he returned to the Post, and stayed another five happy years there.
All this ended when a new editor-in-chief, Mark Clifford, came to the paper. Clifford tried to implement changes that upset many old hands, including Peng. In the end, acting on the advice of friends, he decided to start his own custom publishing firm, and do for himself the things he had been doing for SCMP.
And so, Ren Publishing came into being. It was owned by four partners in the beginning, but is now solely owned by Peng. Ren’s first big client was Hong Lung Properties, which kept the company afloat for a few years. Another important client to come along recently was the Hong Kong Jockey Club. This was a windfall that has allowed for expansion, brought a lot of prestige, and led to new clients.
“Our custom publishing,” explains Peng, “comes mostly in print, although we do e-contents as well. Clients can include Gilman, the giant household appliance supplier, who wishes for a coffee table book to celebrate the company’s 170th anniversary, but who has as yet no idea what the contents should be. My job is to work out for them what they should put in there”.
Clients like the Jockey Club may wish for video content sometimes, which Ren Publishing, with its staff of 12, cannot possibly supply. It has to rely on a network of writers, designers and suppliers for ideas and products. In getting the Jockey Club contract, Peng had to work months in advance to prepare for it, and finally managed to beat top international companies at the tender.
Ren’s clients are largely based in Hong Kong, and although Peng would like to work in Malaysia as well, he realises that Malaysian clients cannot pay the kind of money that Hong Kong clients do. Furthermore, custom publishing is a highly competitive business.
His work at the Straits Times taught Peng to make full use of time zone differences. The Sydney branch that the newspaper set up in 1995 was to allow for work on the paper to commence three hours ahead of Singapore working hours. This was apparently an innovation made by Lim Kim San, the executive chairman of Singapore Press Holdings. Hong Kong’s SCMP also began using that model later, setting up sub-editing offices in Mumbai, Bangkok and Manila. Such a move not only overcomes time constraints, but lowers wages and increases efficiency in resource usage as well.
Ren Publishing therefore tries to make use of contacts in India, Sydney and Sri Lanka to guarantee 24-hour service for its clients. Modern communication technologies have been a boon for small businesses like Peng’s. But the down side is that the arrival of the Blackberry and the iPhone has meant the end of real vacations. The line between work and holiday has been erased.
Peng has made more stops than most people in his line of work. Looking back, what he thinks started him off on his long journey was Penang’s lack of possibilities. The Straits Echo was never going to be anything more than what it was, a local paper. For him to grow, he had to join The Star. But it had to be The Star in Kuala Lumpur, not in Penang. In the end, Hong Kong turned out to be the right size for him. It was a place where learning was effective because he could learn from a variety of nationalities, all in one place. Australian work life was too strongly run by the unions for his liking.
For a long time, retracing his journey never appealed to Peng. After Hong Kong, how does one live in Kuala Lumpur; and after Kuala Lumpur, how do you live in Penang? But lately, Peng admits, he does feel that Kuala Lumpur is not that bad; Penang is not that bad.
Penang is always home. He has now invested in a condominium there. His home town has become a retirement option after all.