Petaling Jaya, Malaysia | Reporter, Star Media Group
Daniel Pearl Fellow | Host: San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times
By Ashley Lime |
Nicholas Cheng was watching “The Paper,” a movie about the workaholic editor of a financially distressed tabloid newspaper in New York City, when he decided to become a journalist.
He was intrigued by the editor, who, despite the demands and pressures of his job, maintains his passion for chasing news and scooping the competition.
Cheng said his parents wanted him to be a doctor, and he had the grades to get into medical school, but his “heart was not in it.”
He was born and raised in Petaling Jaya, a suburb near the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The 26-year-old who was raised by a single mother started working at age 15. “I learned English before learning my native language by watching TV at my grandmother’s house where my mother dropped me off every morning,” he said.
One day, while in high school, Cheng came across a newspaper advertisement placed by The Star calling for interested students to apply for journalism training.
The outgoing journalist immediately applied and started writing for the youth section.
He received a scholarship to study journalism at a private local university and self-funded the remaining costs for his four-year education through acting, in theater and television. While in college, Cheng also worked as a news presenter at a TV station and was later an intern at the BFM 89.9 radio station.
He was also an intern at his country’s oldest newspaper, the New Straits Times, and at the national news wire.
“There is an unexplainable electricity I feel when chasing a story,” Cheng said. “The thrill of not knowing how or where my day is going to end and the understanding that journalists can truly, genuinely make a difference.”
The Daniel Pearl fellow is one of the few reporters in Malaysia who covers crime and politics, including piracy along the Straits of Malacca that separates the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. He reported on the disappearance of one Malaysian airliner (MH370) and the shooting down of another, over Ukraine.
Cheng also covered local gang wars, terrorism, politics, general elections and parliament.
“All these are closely related and are linked to politicians,” Cheng said. “Most papers are government owned and it is very challenging and frustrating for this generation of young journalists to get the stories that make a difference.”
Cheng wrote an exclusive story correcting official accounts about how six people died during the Future Music Festival Asia in Malaysia. The police said the deaths were caused by drug overdoses and canceled subsequent concerts. Cheng determined from the pathologist involved in the case that the deaths were actually caused by heatstroke. The scoop led to an inquest into how police handled the case.
The same year, Cheng broke a story related to a state investment fund scandal allegedly linked to the prime minister. Police detained him for questioning and seized his computer.
Reporting about the scandal by two other newspapers caused them to be closed by the government, Cheng said. Last year, a news website was shut down, leaving some journalists jobless. Since the 1980s, Malaysian journalists have been afraid to do anything that will go against the government, he said, because they want to protect their source of livelihood.
“But with the coming of the internet, people began giving dissenting views and this forced traditional media to change because readers could get balanced views online,” he said. But as governments scrutinize digital media, “journalists are toning down now because they are in fear of pushing boundaries and asking tougher questions.”
Cheng also said education in journalism is lacking in Malaysia, and the country needs journalists who can bridge the digital divide. During this fellowship, he is acquiring skills in data and investigative journalism, which are rare in Malaysian newsrooms.
While the outlook for a robust media seems bleak, Cheng said, “I am not ready to give up on Malaysia.”