The Malaysian Insider (TMI) went offline on the first minute of March 15, 2016. After more than eight years of reporting, the portal’s spectacular run came to an abrupt end, and with that, 59 staffers lost their jobs. Malaysians lost their fix of free, independent news.
And no one felt the burn more than Jahabar Sadiq, the portal’s editor-in-chief. He led the portal since its inception, powered through when the original team jumped ship to launch a rival news site, and was even jailed for approving the publication of a contentious article.
But what happens to the seasoned journalist, who after investing more than eight years of his life into a news portal one day receives a notice to stop breaking news and chasing scoops?
Here, Jahabar shares about his passion for journalism, how TMI was set up, his views on investment and money, and life after TMI with iMoney’s writer, Emmanuel Surendra.
Let’s start with your career. You could have easily become a doctor, lawyer… why a journalist?
After leaving school, I wanted to do computer science at university but I didn’t get the course I wanted and my parents didn’t have the money to send me to America. Back in school, I was the English editor of the school magazine, so my mum thought it would be great if I became a journalist.
Coincidentally, when I left school, the New Straits Times (NST) announced the first intake of their own training scheme for journalists, and my sister applied. Then my mum encouraged me to apply, or rather: “You better apply. What are you going to do with your life?”
I got in but my sister didn’t. I became the youngest to join the course and I was the best student. I was really young.
I was 20 years old and they thought I was too young to be a serious journalist so they put me at the crime desk…
Too young to be a serious journalist? So how much was your first pay?
It was RM900. I wanted to frame it up but it wasn’t much to frame up.
And what did you do with it?
The first thing I did was give a certain amount to my parents. I think everybody does that.
Because I lived with my parents, I paid my own way and I made it a point that whatever salary I earned, 20% goes to my parents for whatever they want.
You lived within 80% of your pay…
Or rather whatever that remained after deductions… tax, EPF, and all that. It is – in what’s now a long journalistic career – the only time where I earned a salary below RM1,000.
Should millennials give back to their parents?
I am not sure as these days parents have to subsidise their kids. It is a different world from where I grew up in, but I think we recognise our parents because of their duty to raise and educate us.
They won’t expect anything back except a filial child. I think it’s important that as a measure of savings, you give some money back to your parents.
Whether it is an Asian or universal value, it is something that has been taught to me and I think it is a good thing.
It’s a way of not blowing up every sen you have and then go crawling back to your parents asking them for a loaner or an I-will-pay-you-back kind of thing.
Back to your career. At one point, you joined Associated Press and Reuters. How did you manage your finances abroad?
The one thing you need is a credit card, which you faithfully pay back. Also, when you are journalist with an international organisation, anywhere you go, you get a daily allowance.
That’s quite a substantial amount and you are not really going to use your, say, US$50 for food or what. A lot of things, such as taxi fare or phone calls, are claimable. But you need to make sure there is a portion of your salary that is kept as reserve.
I travelled a lot for Reuters, so I made sure I always had about then US$1,000. I also made sure I had a traveller’s cheque where I’ll never change it back and if I used it, I topped it up.
But you must always have your cash reserve because when you had to travel, you had to use your own money first.
You seem to be financially disciplined.
I never had a lot of money but I have enough to get by. I don’t need to take a loan. I have a credit card that I faithfully pay and keep up. But it is possible; it’s not that hard.
The two things I spend on are books and cameras, those are the only two things that are my weaknesses. I will go out and buy physical books and I have 20 still unread, mainly comics.
Also, if I think there’s a great camera or lens, I’ll buy it but I’ll make sure the camera pays for itself. How? I try and take some half-decent pictures and try to sell them.
Now, let’s talk about TMI. You already had an enticing offer at Reuters, why trade that for TMI?
I spent 12 years in Reuters covering the region, from Afghanistan to East Timor. Before I went to Jakarta, I helped set up the Insider with some friends. I taught the guys how to run it and to me, in my mind, the idea was always to have an impartial platform online.
When Insider was set up, the great, big website of the day was Malaysiakini.
Malaysiakini was set up as a reaction to what happened in 1998, when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked. They took a position dramatically opposite the mainstream press, creating a lot of space in the middle that nobody took.
Why not hear both sides of news? Let’s try to have a conversation, a discussion. We saw the potential there. Now, when I worked in Reuters, we had a different way of writing, so for the Insider, we couldn’t write the Malaysian way.
The Malaysian way of writing is very partisan, very personal. It’s like, they would say “our country”. It is not “our country”, it is Malaysia. As you are online, it’s international, right? The guy from Timbuktu might be reading it, so what do you mean by “our country”? His country is South Africa, Namibia or wherever.
Changing the writing style, being impartial and fair to everyone, not using loaded words… we saw a space that if we were impartial enough we could attract advertising.
I left Reuters for that reason. The other reason was my parents were getting old and I had left them in the care of my sister and it was unfair. Her kids were growing up, and it was only my sister and me. So I came back to take care of them.
Interesting. How was TMI financed?
When TMI started, I had a bunch of people who actually thought they could get a newspaper licence and they asked me what do I think about it?
If they could get a paper licence, would I be interested in being the editor or one of the editors?
I said I wouldn’t be interested in it as I didn’t think a paper will work. “I think you are just wasting money”, I said.
They asked what would make money or what would ensure they didn’t lose money, and in the arrogance of my youth I said a portal. Yep.
But I didn’t have to look for money; the money was already there. People were interested in funding this, so it wasn’t the case where I had a bright idea and went looking for funds.
I was very fortunate that people with funds had an idea and I polished the idea and they said why don’t you help us run it.
What was your initial reaction when you found out TMI was to close down?
I was always prepared for it. It was hurriedly whispered to me one day when the owners said it was up for sale, and if they didn’t get the price they wanted, they would shut it down.
However, when the time came, of course I was numb and shocked. For an organisation that said we had a three-year turnaround for you, but after 20 months, we have lost money, we are shutting you down…
It didn’t make sense to me that you shut down a company, a news portal that has been heavily bid by at least two parties, and still say it is not enough, that RM10 million has been lost.
Now when they shut us down, the owners told me they weren’t selling it to anyone but will fork out another RM2 million compensation for all the staff, which I thought was generous and thankfully good.
But yeah, when they said they’d shut it down, I was numb for a moment. One thing you learn when you set up businesses like this is be prepared for the day it will die or that it is no longer sustainable and you move on.
How were the early days like for you, post-retrenchment?
Nothing. I was actively looking at other investors to do something, looking at the market and all that.
I wouldn’t say I was angry, but yeah I was pissed off. Angry would be too mild a word. I was pissed off that it happened and I felt rotten for my 58 other colleagues because I let them down but it was taken off my hand.
When my partner and I sold TMI to The Edge, we thought we’d be in good hands and a better home with more resources. But it happened, right?
So, for the first few weeks I was pissed off, then I calmed down and I said okay, I haven’t taken a break in 28 years, I will give myself two months and I’ll actively start again. The two months now has rolled on to eight months.
I have decided to let Christmas slide. This year has been an indecently bad year, career-wise. Yeah, I had a decent compensation but I don’t need to spend much. I managed to pay off my car and my house…
Did it affect personal expenditure?
I think I spent fewer days at the pub, that’s all. I get by, I mean I do some writing here and there, I do some media consultancy, some media training. it takes care of my basic needs. I am a low-maintenance guy; I don’t go for RM200 steaks.
Was TMI your biggest financial drain?
Yeah, from day one to the end, TMI never made money. At one point, we did make a fair bit from Google AdSense, about US$30,000 a month. But to grow, we had to hire more people. After the original team left, we hired a whole new bunch of people including yourself (the author) and we had to even pay the inexperienced ones like yourself (the author) a certain amount of money, right? To invest in them.
We spent more than we should have. That’s because we knew we had a great product and we just needed the talent to run it. It was also getting to be a crowded space and everyone was paying top dollar.
We were always confident that we will do better. Why we didn’t was simple: we were a news portal that was impartial and very critical of the government. So, government agencies, GLCs refused to advertise with us. The most we had from this pool were CIMB and Bank Negara Malaysia.
When you are in a hostile business environment, when these guys knew that when we didn’t have money, we will eventually fold up… that’s what they did. We were killed by economic circumstances more than anything else. The money will always be an issue.
On that note, the best and worst investments you’ve made?
The worst is always a car. For me, it was a BMW. The best is still property, if you can afford to buy one. It is as simple as that.
As a journalist, can you even make money?
Seriously, as a journalist, you don’t make money. The pay is enough to live by yourself. You can’t even raise a family.
But you did invest?
Yes. Back then, our pay was low but we got a bigger bonus, maybe four months’ pay. So that was what I did at the height of the financial crisis in ‘98.
I just got back from Reuters and a friend of mine wanted to sell an apartment and told me he would give it to me at cost price. All I had to pay was the down payment and the monthly mortgage.
The apartment cost a princely sum of RM170,000 then. So I paid him the 10% and then paid the monthly repayment. I did use my EPF Account 2 to help top up the down payment but I finally completed paying it off last year.
After 17 years, I have an apartment in my name.
How much is it worth now?
I am not a great investor and I don’t invest in anything that makes me money, really. But my friend, the guy who sold me his apartment, is really good; normally I tumpang him.
He makes the deals and I get a share of it. So, a few of us, we get together and put in whatever amount we have and then each is allocated a percentage of the investment, according to how much they put.
I also have some savings. I put money in insurance and unit trusts. I used some savings and invested in my dad’s goat farm as well, which will bring in returns within a year. That’s about it.
Household debt and the cost of living are at an all-time high. What do you think Malaysians can do without?
Coffee… I don’t think you can put it as that. I wouldn’t know. I am a lousy guy to give financial advice. I am the worst possible example.
Why do you say that?
If I was a wise investor, I would have joined a government newspaper and still have a job. I will have a car and all these fancy trips here and there, covering the prime minister in Beijing or the deputy prime minister in New York.
That’s a wise investor. I am the lousiest. I left the NST six years into my career, went into the uncertain world of international journalism and news portals. I am a risky guy in that sense.
So, I don’t invest in safety. My job involves danger. I crave for it. Trouble and danger is what I want. How do you insure that?
How do you take advice from someone who is half the time thinking I should be there, in that trouble spot?
I am the last person to give advice.
And your closest shaves with death?
A rocket attack in Kabul… running over an area filled with landmines. I lived to tell the tale, right? But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.