Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do. – Science fiction author, Isaac Asimov

Every time I read about the petty tyrannies of minor functionaries it affects me. 

It’s common in Malaysia but it probably happens everywhere. Our fourth Premier Abdullah Badawi even labelled these autocrats. He called them “Little Napoleons” which makes the point but, alas, disses the great man.

I mention it only because it could happen to you. It certainly happened to me. 

In 1984, I’d been a biochemist in Ipoh for 4 years and, worse, begun hearing that I would soon be transferred to Teluk Intan. To explain, that’s a “district” hospital and, officially therefore, the boondocks. 

Moreover, I’d tried to transfer to the Institute for Medical Research in KL but struck out. Ditto for my wife, a civil servant in KL, who tried to transfer to Ipoh.  

Like everyone else, we corresponded by post, and it must have been then when Rebecca mentioned my “OK” writing, and maybe I should consider applying for journalism. 

And I did – twice! – only to be rebuffed by the then managing editor of the NST Press. It was polite and all, but it was the equivalent of The Finger.

I felt like Rodney Dangerfield: “The way my luck is running, if I was a politician, I would be honest.”  

In early ’84, however, I noticed an ad that was for a writing job. It didn’t ask for an English or Arts degree, only “solid English” and I sensed my A-Ha moment. 

Having been rejected twice, however, I resolved to take no chances. Two of my wife’s housemates worked as journos, and, in short order, established that the ad was for a magazine called Malaysian Business – I’d never heard if it – and it was run by one Shaik Osman Majid who was, apparently, difficult but fair. 

They advised me to write a letter that was “different.” To ensure success, they would go about it “the Malaysian way” and use a friend of Shaik. Leave it to us, they said, and I was happy to oblige.   

I composed a letter – Shaik would have used “missive” – that I felt was humorous and gave it to R who passed it to T, Shaik’s friend.

Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men… 

The friend, T, couldn’t find Shaik so he left it on his desk. Having no clue what it was about, Shaik promptly threw it into the dustbin. The interview letters went out and I would have been adrift if my wife didn’t follow up. 

R called Shaik’s friend, T, who asked Shaik who cheerfully confessed to throwing it away. 

The upshot: the day before the exam/interview, my wife called and asked me to take the night train to KL: Shaik had called her.

I duly presented myself at NST at 8.45 the next morning, only to be rebuffed by the guards: I had no “letter”. 

I told them about Shaik, Ipoh, even the late train. All they needed was to check. They were adamant:  everyone had to have a letter. It was the rules

I doggedly hung around – in tie, and increasingly matted shirt – until I spotted Charles Peters arriving for work. I’d known Charley from my uni-days. Better yet, he was now an NST senior executive.

In no time, he’d smoothed things over, and I was allowed entry. 

I was an hour late for the “exam,” but I became a journalist. Shaik, bless his heart, even allowed me to resign immediately by getting NST to pay off the government.  

I still had to return to clear up stuff, but it was with a song on my lips and joy in my heart. 

It takes very little to change the course of a life.