On his very first assignment as an intern at The Straits Times (ST), Mr Ng Keng Gene did not expect to interview a chief executive officer.
He was supposed to be shadowing a more senior reporter at a workplace health and safety event, but she had left early for a lunch meeting, leaving him to conduct the doorstop interview alone.
“It was very nerve-wracking being in a doorstop for the first time, holding up your phone to record, thinking through how you’re going to phrase the questions,” recalls Mr Ng, 28. “It was scary. I was shaking.”
While he did not end up writing a story on the event, some quotes he got there were later used in another article he wrote on the accidental death of a worker at a construction site.
The event gave him his first taste of how journalism puts one in a position to ask important questions and weave together stories to show the bigger picture.
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“We were given a lot of opportunities as interns,” he says. “They put us in the shoes of a real journalist.”
In 2016, he was awarded a Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Scholarship (now known as SPH Media Journalism Scholarship) to study at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He joined ST full time in 2020 and won the SPH Young Journalist of the Year award in 2023.
Initially, when Mr Ng applied for the ST internship, he had only been looking for a temporary writing job in between national service and starting university. However, he was told that he had to apply as a potential SPH scholar as part of the protocol.
Having scored Bs and a C for his A levels at Anderson Junior College, he did not consider himself scholarship material. It came as a surprise when his supervisors thought otherwise.
“I think the newsroom appreciates your skills more than your grades,” he says.
His internship coincided with the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election, which he jumped at the chance to cover.
Mr Ng, who majored in political science at NUS, found it exciting to attend rallies and even follow the candidates on the campaign trail.
“I got to see up close how the campaigns were run and how the candidates interacted with people, things which a normal voter wouldn’t get to see,” he says.
“I was grateful for such opportunities which factored into my decision to pursue journalism as a career.”
In his current role at ST, Mr Ng reports on land use and urban development in Singapore. While his work also straddles other beats such as transport, housing, environment and heritage, he regards them through a spatial lens.
“We all live in a city, but most people don’t think about the implications of spaces and how they change,” he says.
He cites, as an example, a story he did on junior colleges being housed in taller buildings to reduce the land area they occupy.
“We grew up with the expectation of schools being big and sprawling with open spaces to run around in. Having more high-rise schools in smaller areas will affect students’ experiences and how they interact with each other.”
This, of course, is not something the average student dwells on during their schooling. Mr Ng feels, however, that it benefits Singaporeans to be aware of how their lives are shaped by urban space.
“Because of how land-scarce Singapore is, we always have to carefully consider the decisions we make when we want to develop and recognise the inevitable trade-offs. It is imperative for people to learn to have conversations about these decisions,” he says.
Among his most memorable stories was his investigation into a review of the policies to calculate land prices for places of worship.
The story was tricky to pull off, as he had to prise information out from sources, including religious organisations and the government, but he managed to break the story, which went on to provoke discussion in Parliament.
He feels that one of the most rewarding aspects of working in today’s digital newsroom is mobile storytelling.
Some of his favourite stories have been collaborations with colleagues in interactive graphic design and video, such as a 2023 package on Jurong Bird Park’s move to Mandai.
“It challenged me to think not just about text but how we could integrate visuals with videos, what it means to write for a different audience or a new platform,” he says.
Mr Ng believes aspiring journalists must have three qualities: an inquisitive mind, a thick skin and the ability to build trust.
The last two did not come easily to him, who is by nature an introvert. Since his first ST internship pushed him out of his comfort zone, however, he has not looked back.
“I appreciate the freedom to explore stories that I am interested in and not be confined to a job that is repetitive every day,” he says.
“I never dreamt of being a journalist. I didn’t know what working at a newspaper entailed. It was only during the internship that I figured out what the value of news is and how to put stories together.”