The bare walls of the conference room I’ve been left in adds to the uninviting ambience. Surely, being the corporate headquarters of Chanda, the poshest shopping centre in all Kuala Lumpur, the least management could have done was splash out on some decent décor. Then again, I am not here to criticise the artwork, or lack thereof. My assignment is to interview Anthony Ealy, the shopping centre’s Chief Executive Officer. My editor wants a story about this man’s involvement in a project to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis of Malaysia. After a string of dull stories, this promises to be a fascinating one.
In the next instant, a man I presume is Ealy walks in, spritely and confident. His hand is already extended to greet me.
“Good morning, Ms. Pillay, Anthony Ealy,” he says with a heavy Australian drawl.
I stand and take his hand. The palms are soft and skin smooth, which is in contrast to the many wrinkles on his face. His mousy hair, cut very close to his scalp, can’t disguise his very high hairline.
He takes his place at the head of the long table and I sit on one side of him. On the other is his Public Relations Manager who arranged this interview. From our telephone conversation yesterday, I know her name is Veni. How her efficiency completely belies her petite frame.
Time to start. I take a deep breath and say, “Please don’t be angry with me, but I have to ask for your age? The papers requires this of me.”
“I don’t want to tell you that.”
That was abrupt. Still, not one to give up, I try again. “OK. Can you tell me if you’re married? Children?”
“No. I don’t see why you need this information.”
This was going to be tough. I look down at the table and take three deep breaths.
“Mr. Ealy, I am writing a feature article. Not a paragraph about the event. I need some background information or else there’s nothing for me to write.” My speech is deliberately slow, lest my growing frustration shows.
He raises one eyebrow, but remains silent.
Perhaps, I should try another tactic. I take the sheet of paper Veni gave me when we first met. It’s meant to be Ealy’s biodata. I read that his full name is Anthony Roger Stedman Ealy. The meaning of the word that his initials make is not wasted on me. Ealy went to a university in Gunnedah. Did this university actually exist? He’s probably just another dumb expatriate we Asians hired because of the colour of his skin. I can’t say that to him. He snatches the piece of paper from me, scans the words, crumples the paper and chucks it at Veni.
Startled, she picks up the paper from the floor then smoothens it out.
“This is all wrong,” Ealy says to a spot above Veni’s head. “It’s ridiculous. I’ll deal with is later.” To me, he says, “I’m not going to tell you about my days in university. I don’t see why the Malaysian public needs to read any information about me.”
I am too mortified to speak.
Time for being polite was over. An ignorant fool needs to be treated accordingly.
“Well, you do realise that this interview is a profile story about you? It’s for the MENs pages.”
“We thought the story was for Style,” Veni replied, her voice feeble.
“I am from Style. It’s the magazine section of the paper.” Looking directly at Ealy’s face, I ask, “Do you read the papers? Surely, when you request that a part of the newspaper interviews you, you would read that part of the papers?”
Both of them look down at the table.
Still, I need to take something back to the papers or else the editor’s going to be furious. “OK. At lease tell me about this project.”
“OK,” he replies quickly and his shoulders drop. “A few years ago, I went to London for a business trip. During a visit to Buckingham Palace – where the Queen of England lives, we saw a group of autistic children being taken around the palace. You know Buckingham Palace?” Giving a once-over my clothes, he whispers, “Maybe not.” Scratching the loose skin on his neck, he says, “Anyway, I paid £15 to go in.”
Idiot! Just because I was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans didn’t mean I was too poor to visit London.
I studied there you cretin. I stood in line from 7 a.m. to get a ticket into the palace when it was first opened to the public in 1997. And I paid only £8.
Stop it, Susan Pillay! You have a job to do here. The story he’d just told was something we could on. Perhaps we were getting somewhere.
I ask hopeful, “So, can I put this in my story?”
I throw my pen down on the table. “So, what can I put in the papers?”
“Well, …” He ran his hand down his hairless arms and said, “You know, it’s amazing how little is done for Malaysian children. This government doesn’t do a thing for its people. When I spoke with the Minister of Health, he said sorry and that the Ministry couldn’t allocate funds here. He said sorry and that’s it. The only reason the Cystic Fibrosis Society is doing well is because it’s the parents who run it. You people – you Malaysians – don’t care about children do you?”
This asshole had the audacity to come to my country and criticise its people in this condescending manner. Still, what’s the point of losing my temper? After all, don’t these whites love Asians for our smile? We can rob them blind, but we’ll still smile. We can write terrible things about them, but we will still smile. So, I smile.
Placing his palms on the table, he says, “OK. I’m done here.” With a nod in my direction, he walks out.
Veni and I stare at each other for a few seconds, unsure of what to say.
She opens her mouth to speak. She closes it. Then she opens it again and speaks, her voice feeble. “We are so sorry about this.”
I put my palm up to stop her saying anymore. Apologising isn’t going to help. It’s time I say what’s at stake here.
“Let me tell you this. You want me to focus on one particular aspect of this project? OK, I can do that. That’s one paragraph. You want me to mention the event? OK. Another paragraph. Then what? This isn’t the news desk, you know. It’s the features articles. I have no story and you know what’s worse?”
Veni’s eyes fill with tears. I sympathise, but the cost of coming for this assignment needs to be made clear. “As a freelance writer, with no story to submit or publish, I won’t be paid. So, you and your boss have effectively wasted my time.”
Veni says nothing for a while before she says the only thing she can: “Sorry Susan.”
I give a one-sided smile. “Well, this another case of measuring waste with a sorry.”