My first job was at The Malay Mail.
Actually, my first job was at a pharmacy in Midvalley Megamall. I was a cashier. They paid me RM600 a month and if there was something crazy like the Carrefour Midnight Sale or something, I got some overtime.
The reason I worked there was because I was holding out for a writing job. I graduated in computer science but had decided to not pursue a career in that line.
I had, by that time, received an offer to present a system I developed in UM to a conference in Portugal. I developed a tutorial system complete with an AI that could mark tests and tutorials - even subjective questions and answers - and then assess weaknesses as well as dispense notes and reading lists to individual students based on their unique performances and answers.
The system could identify which part of the course each student is weak with and then point them to relevant passages or pages of reference books/notes.
It's pretty simple now, and I see kids as young as 12 coming up with even more complex and elegant systems. But this was 2003 and back then, it was quite okay. For UM.
However, I have decided that I was going to be a writer. Fuck everything else.
When I told my father, he was pissed off.
"Who are you going to write for? Harakah? Tamil Nesan?"
And so I was a cashier at a pharmacy, waiting for that writing job. The pharmacy was just outside Carrefour and Carrefour had this lunch deli, where you can buy fried rice or chicken, whatever. They sold fried rice by the weight of the amount you took.
I went to the thing and used a skill I learned in school - I spent 10 minutes each time, filling my polystyrene with bits of chicken they put in the fried rice. And then placing a thin layer of fried rice on top.
All my life up to that point was about surviving in harsh conditions, and RM600 in the middle of KL is fucking harsh.
It was possible to survive. I mean, dinner was usually fried egg with rice and aji-shio (pepper loaded with MSG). I took the bus, which meant a lot of walking.
I squatted at friends' apartments. I also took my first writing job - as a food reviewer.
There was no pay, which led me to quit the thing after a month or two - but I got to eat. I ate at the most expensive restaurants in town. I had escargot, truffles, Australian crab, lobster, scallops, fresh-water prawns, honey-fried squid, shark's fin, high-end dim sum - you name it. I have eaten every type of food I would want to eat.
This is how I supplemented my diet for a brief period.
I was also writing scripts. I used my online contacts to land exactly one animation writing gig. I did three episodes, but was paid for only one, cause the other two sucked balls.
I got help from one of my brother's friends to print out 52 applications for writing positions all around town. I got called to six interviews. NST was the first.
They asked me to write a feature story, and I did. Then, based on that one article, I got into The Malay Mail.
Looking back, those few months were crazy. I did not have money or support. My family was not and is not rich, and I was shoving as much MSG as I could into my face to mask the blandness of rice.