As a writer for the “Breakfast Network” in 2013 – or an “undie”, as the undergraduates were affectionately nicknamed – I was always nudged out of my comfort zone, even if I had penned socio-political commentaries on my own blog since 2009. In fact “you write like an old man” was her first feedback, when I first met Bertha (aka Madam) in 2012 at her university masterclass, after troubling her to go through my posts.
She never lowered the bar throughout that year. Neither did the team of “oldies’’, who pounced on our errors. I struggled for so long after my first assignment at Pink Dot – gathering notes, transcribing quotes, checking facts – that Madam took over the Google document and churned the article out in less than an hour. When I was writing a Pulau Ubin piece, she linked me up with a representative from the Singapore Land Authority, and with just five minutes to prepare and I fumbled through the interview without a recorder and properly-framed questions. I was a bag of nerves. Even when I felt more prepared to report a CPF protest at Hong Lim Park, Madam raised more points for improvement at the post-mortem.
I had never taken a class in journalism, and still wrote like a general paper student with my thesis statements and monotonous content paragraphs. But months into the gig, terms like briefs, ledes, and kickers became more familiar. I learnt to ask sharper questions too.
More importantly, I began to embrace the rigour and the criticisms. And when Madam announced that she was shutting the site down I knew I would miss the routines – the news summaries in the mornings, the assignments on the weekends – and the rigour. I have no aspirations (or abilities) to be a journalist, yet writers are self-important creatures, and I rued the fewer opportunities to improve myself.
I’ve missed that. Beyond the team in “The Middle Ground”, the critics will scrutinise every word, every article, yet within the team, the scrutiny is even more intense. And besides the high standards there is plenty of room for disagreements. In 2013 when I disagreed with Madam’s support for principal Marion Tan, who had asked her students to don wigs after they had cut their hair to raise funds for a cancer charity, she asked for a riposte right away.
Three years after that first encounter I don’t think I’ve necessarily grown up. Just a little wiser, a little more skilled, and a little less thin-skinned.
I am excited for “The Middle Ground”, and even more excited to be nudged out of my comfort zone once again.