ICON: TONY FRANCIS
By Tony Mariadass
Tony Francis pursuing a journalistic career came naturally, as he came from a family of journalists.
But what was supposed to be career path turned out to be his passion and it has been a life time job since he started as a rookie at the age of 20 till now, when he will turn 68 on May 22.
Tony’s elder brothers Jeffery (migrated to Australia) and Jerry (former NST Ipoh bureau chief, retired but still involved in media work) were both working with New Straits Times and he joined them in 1967, as a cadet reporter with the news desk.
“Yes, although I was hoping to join the sports desk, I was placed in the news desk where I remained for three months,” recalled Tony.
“After three months, I was asked to join the sports as the desk was beefing up. It was the best thing that happened to me and I was overjoyed.”
Tony said that besides his brothers being journalists which influenced him in his career, it was legendary sports writer Norman Sibel, who inspired him.
“I used to read his columns as a schoolboy and was mesmerised by the way he wrote.
“He was a colourful writer, objective, nailed it to the head and called a spade, a spade.
“Imagine my joy when I was asked to join the sports desk and Norman was the sports editor. I was going to work under the every person whom I had admired and hero worshiped,” said Tony who joined the late Mansoor Rahman and Ian Pereira at the desk.
Tony recalled a day when he asked Norman if he could hitch a ride to a Razak Cup hockey match, he was going to cover.
“I just wanted to follow Norman to see first-hand how he did his interviews and what kind of angles he would be looking for.
“To my surprise Norman agreed and when we arrived at the Mindef Stadium, I saw a senior hockey official spot Norman and despite several VVIPS present, he immediately rose and rushed towards Norman to greet him and ordered his personnel to get a table and chair for him and pampered over him.
“I was impressed at the respect
he was given and told myself that one day I wanted to be like him.”
|Tony in his younger days (middle)|
Asked Tony if he achieved the status, with another laugh he says: “Norman was a legend. Nobody can attain the standards he had set. I had not even achieved ankle deep of what he had achieved,” said Tony who has been to two Olympics (Korea 1988 and Barcelona 1992) and three World Cups (1974 Germany, 2006 Berlin and 2010 South Africa).
Tony rose from a cadet reporter to become Assistant Sports Editor, Sports editor, Chief News Editor and Associate Editor before he retired from NST in 2002 – after 35 years with the organisation.
But it was his days with sports that Tony loved and enjoyed for 33 years.
Tony was the assistant sports editor with New Straits Times before he become sports editor of The Malay Mail in 2002, before he returned to NST sports desk.
Upon retiring, he was the Editor of Golf Digest with Blu Inc before joining Malay Mail under its new management as the editor-in-chief. He now works as a consultant with motoring magazine Top Gear.
“In the world of journalism there is no such thing as retiring. If we journalists do not continue working in some capacity, we might die,” said Tony laughing.
On working in the news desk despite his love and passion for sports, he had this to say: “Working on the news desk was good. The perks were good. You get to travel to places you never dreamt you would ever go. You get to meet the prime minister and other VIPs and be part of the development process. But it's a restricted environment.
“Sports took me on a high like a drug. You get involved emotionally when the country wins or loses. You get so much joy in telling a happy story to your readers or sad when you have to tell them what happened in defeat.
“But one event that I will always remember was when the 40,000 fans of all races in the Merdeka Stadium stood up and sang the NegaraKu when the King arrived for the kickoff of a final between Malaysia and another team I cannot remember. (The Sultan of Pahang was the King then). I don't know why, but that was a high I will always remember.”
Tony said his phase with the Malay Mail sports desk and then back with the sports desk in NST holds fond memories.
“I had an excellent team in Malay Mail and I managed change the style of sports writing with commentaries, personality highlights and inside and behind the scene stories. I managed to continue with that when I moved back to NST and it was very satisfying.
“We made inroads in sports reporting and charted paths for sports in the country.”
Tony also recalled is early days in journalism which moulded him to become what he is.
“Besides Norman, I had people like late Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee who took so much interest in sports, late Francis Emmanuel whose contacts was simply amazing, sub-editor Alex Soars who made a difference to our copies and sports editor Chuah Huck Seng to thank for in guiding me.”
Tony recalled an incident in 1969, still as a rookie reporter which shook him up but only made him stronger and be prepared for all sorts of challenges.
“It was May 13 and I went to cover a Selangor football league match at the TPCA Stadium (now Jalan Raja Muda Stadium). I was there with Francis who hitched a ride with me on my Honda Sports 90 motorcycle,” recalled Tony.
“The match had hardly began when we heard explosions and then smoke billowing. The crowd at the stands rushed to the top of the stands to see what was happening and in a split second were retreating and running helter skelter. The match was still going as the referee refused to stop the match despite people running all over the field.
“I too run up to the top of the stands and what I saw shocked me – cars were on fire and people running in all directions. I ran down and told Francis what was happening and we immediately made our way to the main building. The officials immediately locked the main gate ordered us to remain inside the building. We remained there overnight!
“But being a reporter, I found a public phone to call back the office to report the situation, give a five para story to the news desk and then called the sports desk and give the abandoned football match report.
“It was only the next day after a few phones calls, that Francis and I were sent back in army truck.”
Tony said that on May 22 on his birthday, when curfew was lifted he had returned to pick his motorcycle at TPCA and all he saw when he arrived was the shell of the motorcycle which set on fire.
“I made a police report and reported to the office too. To my surprise I was told by the office to get a new motorcycle the next day which the company paid for.”
Tony also recalled personalities whom he had met in his course of job which were just dreams before that.
Indonesia’s badminton star Rudy Hartono became a close friend to him after he ghost wrote his columns as run-ups to the Thomas Cup, Francis and he got up close and personal Mohamad Ali during the Ali-Bugner world heavyweight fight in Kuala Lumpur when the duo would be there for the former’s morning runs at the horse racing course as early as 5am and Kevin Keegan whom he managed to secure to write a column when he was in Malaysia in 1982 to name a few.
Tony also revealed that he loved horse racing and one day when Tan Sri Lee who was among the tipsters with NST was on leave, he was asked to give his forecast.
“I had six hits and two second in the card of eight races. And the next day, Tan Sri Lee came by the sports desk and asked who had given the forecast. When Mansoor, the then sports editor pointed to me, he said: “Never in my life have I predicted six winners and today I was getting calls congratulating me.”
Asked if would ask change his life if he had a chance to relive his life again, he replied: “I would want everything to be the same, except that I want to finish my career in sports. Sports is my passion.”
But Tony said that wished that he did not have to lose his loved one, his wife and former journalist, Goh Keng Lee, so early in his life (1994).
“Losing a loved one is a very difficult especially when I had to be a single parent to my two children and to juggle as a newspaper man was indeed difficult. My in-laws too had passed away and it was elder sister, Angela, who helped out, but she had her own family too.”
But Tony did well and his son Mark, 30 and daughter Kylie, 28, have graduated from Iowa and Harvard respectively and are working as professionals in Malaysia.
Tony not only made a name for himself as sports journalist and as an editorial man, but has been a mentor for many young reporters including the scribe.
He was a taskmaster who demanded the best, but it was his passion for sports journalism which rubbed off many of us and saw us strive to emulate him.