The Sumiko Phenomenon

20170802_131531Photo courtesy of The Straits Times & NewspaperSG (National Library Board, Singapore)

This article is reproduced with courtesy of The Straits Times, 10 December, 2000 to share on this blog.

The Sumiko phenomenon, celebrated columnist.

Serene Goh examines the Sumiko Tan Pheomenon, the turn of the spotlight from newsmakers to the people who write the news – journalists.  Tan Dawn Wei contributed to this report.

Heroes.  Those necessary icons of our generation.  Move over Gandhi and Lennon.  In today’s Singapore, one name stands out above the rest:  Sumiko Tan.

We know her as the dulcet belle and deputy editor on The Straits Times’ Life! section.  A celebrity in her own right, here is a faithful following besotted with her fortnightly Sunday Plus diary entries on her life.

And it’s been so since July 3, 1994, with some 135 pieces on a plethora of topics: her career, her love life, disrobing for a Japanese bath, her break-up, her addiction to watching the Olympics, her love life.

When Sumiko goes to the hawker centre, it’s a Kodak moment.  Her A-Z shopping guide is a clip-out op.  Her insights into bad hair days display a deep understanding of the true disaster of unyielding tresses.  Thriving in the new economy, her online chat generated marriage proposals in a stream of hits only marginally less mighty than the Senior Minister’s.

Let’s face it:  She’s a star.  Telling, then, that at one Star Awards, the camera rested on her face, seated among local television glitterati.  After all, it’s a face that’s as much recognised for gracing and campaigns for UOB Lady’s Card and Lee Hwa Jewellery, as for being protagonist of the running serial, the Life! and times of Sumiko Tan.

Call it a Zeitgeist in journalism.  The New York Times reports that the modern byline doesn’t simply identify authorship, but works like a conventioneer’s identification tag.

It puts a human face on the institution, writes Felicity Barringer, citing the growing trend for newspapers to run e-mail addresses and/or telephone numbers with bylines.

Whereas in the past, the invisible journo played wall-flower to hardcore news, or expert commentary on current events, today, the author’s personality is a selling point too.

Stalwarts such as Dave Barry or Zuzie Menkes, for instance, have long been prized as specialists on humour and fashion.

But Sumiko has gone a step further.  She isn’t beloved for being the respected journalist of 15 years that she is.  Most don’t realise her influences include Time magazine’s Pico Iyer and feminist writer Camille Paglia.  Or even that she’s authored 12 books on crime, corporations, The Singapore Parliament, as well as co-authored a biography of  Lee Kuan Yew.

Rather, she’s most famous for her columns on her after-office hours.  Confessional and earnest, the flavour of her columns don’t quite fit the beefy blend of the five-sectioned Straits Times.  Yet, it’s a voyeuristic taste that’s addictive.

Alwyn Lim, sociology tutor at the National University of Singapore, said this is due to an emerging culture where people are induced to tell all.  “It’s like that with popular talk shows and people who post their diaries on the Internet.”  Her insights, he said, are a necessary breather.  “Sumiko Tan’s (columns) are about the most open we can get in Singapore’s newspapers, since any highly personal political opinions would probably be directed to the Forum or the Speakers’ Corner.”

Such as, say, braving Speakers’ Corner in Moschino sling-backs.  It’s not every nation that can boast a journo who’s popular simply because, well, she shares deeply.

London’s Sunday Times columnist Zoe Heller came close, detailing her trysts in what she called a horribly indiscreet weekly narrative.  Though wickedly funny, her pieces were largely popular among what she calls “dirty old men”.  She finally stopped because she was typecast as a “girly writer”.

“I thought: ‘why am I telling three million people the intimate details of my life every Sunday morning?'” she said.

“Before I started, I worked for four years as a features journalist at the Independent on Sunday.

“After a couple of years, I was only ever asked to write giggly pieces about condoms, or articles such as Whither Romance In The 21st Century/”

Sumiko faces the same pigeonhole.  As with pop icons, she has detractors; harsh ones, whose criticisms involve such words as “juvenile”, “uninspiring” and “diabolically insidious”.

Readers such as Annie Leong, restaurant owner and biochemistry graduate, pulls no punches.  “She whines, and she whines.

“I would have thought she was fresh out of school.  There’s no depth,” Leong complains.

“I don’t have any arguments with her topics, but her approach is just not worth the ink.”

No stranger to venom, Sumiko reckons her positive feedback outweighs the negative by about 7-to-3, with some comments getting very personal.

“I remember a man who left a message in my office mail saying sneeringly and condescendingly:  “Please Sumiko Tan, do you really think people care about what you say?  Your pieces make me sick.  Why don’t you just shut up,” she said.

“Mostly, it’s from folks who say they are disgusted at how I keep writing about myself, or how my topics are always trivial (love, relationships, hairstyles, clothes), and how dare I take up space in a national paper with my petty concerns.”

But, she counters: “It is not as if I’m some exhibitionist who takes great joy in revealing intimate details of my life.  It’s just that over the years, I’ve realised that it is usually anecdotes that get people hooked onto a story.

Because my column is meant to be a ‘personal’ one as opposed to, say, a political-analytical type of column.  I’ve concluded that it is only anecdotes from my own life that I can tell with honesty and sincerity.”

It’s  a formula that works among those who identify with bleeding hearts than a hulky-sulky Xena.  Ultimately, there’s a comfort in knowing someone – anyone – faces the clumsy everyday we call life with the same lows we do.

As Lim points out: “Sumiko’s column ‘happens’ for the same reason people watch Ally McBeal: They want to take a lighthearted look at their everyday lives.”  And if you even have a trace of an inner sap, you’ll say aww to that.

The truth is – are you sitting down? – Sumiko has outgrown herself, becoming greater than the sum of her parts.

If you think the sole distinction between her and creations such as Ally McBeal or Bridget Jones is that Sumiko is a real person expressing real thoughts, you are mistaken.

In the world of everyday heroes, journalistic personalities such as her mark the industry’s contribution to mass mascots.

So she isn’t a morose lawyer, or a chubby media toady.  Still, her column, and consequently her persona, functions as a behind-the-scenes look at a profession built on exposing others.  Sociologically speaking, it’s an answer to intellectual snobbery:   Mass communication at its purest.

For Sumiko, it’s an objective fulfilled.  “I have a column to write … my job is to get them read.

“From feedback, I gather that some of my columns like those on death and relationships, have been cathartic for readers, because I am voicing for them what they have experienced.”

After all, even her harshest critics still follow her, whatever their morbid fascinations.

As Lim points out: “Love her or hate her, people will still continue to read Sumiko’s column because she has offered herself as the voice of fluff of the nation.  And what’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, of course.  Not even if that means working through the lachrymose tale of a tortured Tamagotchi-lookalike pet called Dinkie who shrivelled up and died from neglect.


Note:  The quoted italic passages above are highlighted to share my personal sentiments.


AskST@NLB at the Central Public Library


The new series of talks held on the first Friday of every month at Programme Zone, Central Public Library.  The askST@NLB talks, a joint effort between The Straits Times and the National Library Board (NLB).  There are 12 in each run.

Starting it off is the talk by Executive Editor of The Straits Times, Sumiko Tan as she shares about her experiences with life, love and loss.

Sumiko Tan wrote her first personal column as a young reporter in 1994.  Over the next 22 years, her fortnightly column in The Sunday Times gathered a faithful readership and made her a household name.  With heartfelt honesty, her columns chronicled the ups and downs of singlehood, working life and when it finally happened when she was 46, married life.

Her new book “Sundays with Sumiko” was recently launched.  It is a collection of her most representative columns over the past two decades, exploring family, love, friends, career, dogs, death and marriage.

I am pleased to attend an enlightening talk by Sumiko Tan and she graciously agreed to pose a photo with me for keepsake.20170802_172400








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