Barry Wain: an Australian who didn’t wait for the ‘Asian Century’
7 Feb 2013|
Barry Wain, Image credit: malaysiakini

If Australia is to have a true place in the Asian Century, as the government White Paper promised, then we will need many more Australians like the journalist and editor, Barry Wain.

Barry, who has died in Singapore at the age 68, made his life in East Asia and went to the very top of his craft. He was the editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal and his biography of Mahathir Mohammad is the best and most balanced yet produced on that mercurial Malaysian leader.

An editor who suffered so much journalist pain during the ‘Asian values’ arguments mounted by Mahathir (and Lee Kuan Yew) went on to produce a dispassionate and nuanced assessment of Mahathir’s career. This was no irony for anyone who knew Barry Wain as the most professional of journalists. The care and caution he brought to his role as editor could never quite disguise the joy and juice he got from chasing a story and breaking a yarn.

When Wain left the Canberra Press Gallery in 1971, he broke with a well-established tradition of Australian hackdom. He did not sail to England and Fleet Street. Instead, he headed to East Asia to start a life-long commitment, working in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and just about anywhere else in the region where a plane could land. He went not as a war correspondent but as a reporter who wanted to live and work in a region that was reaching for the economic muscle to match the still fresh aims of national independence.

Barry Wain went on to spend four decades writing about one of the biggest stories in the world: the creation of modern Asia after 500 years of European domination. As a reporter, he recalled in 2007, it was ‘just fantastic’! In Australia, forms of government and much else about the society were set and settled, but in Asia ‘all these issues were still in transition and some of them are still not settled in these countries, and some of the borders and boundaries are still not settled… So to watch all that fall into place, gradually come together and that has just been an amazing story, and I get as excited today as when I arrived’.

It was truly a fantastic story, but to report Asia to Asia using the forms of daily journalism was to walk a constant obstacle course through politics, culture and power. Barry Wain was the editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal for eight years from 1984 to 1992 and then served as a contributing editor, writing an influential column. In this interview in 2007, he told me that government censorship in Asia has gradually become much lighter, but in the 1980s and 1990s, an honest newspaper faced some nasty choices:

For a start, you’re publishing in the English language. Now that means different things, or it meant different things to different governments at that time. Some were alarmed by the fact that we were influential, others thought it was inconsequential because you are not reaching too many people. Though we reckon we were reaching, or we knew we were reaching the decision makers and the high-income groups, that’s for sure.

I inherited a situation in which my predecessors were just absolutely determined to run the paper with the same honesty as they ran The Wall Street Journal in the United States.

I hope we also sort of tempered it with some realism and respect. I don’t mean doctoring stories or going soft on things, but I think going about stories in a sensitive way, doing the reporting honestly but without being deliberately provocative or unnecessarily provocative and that sort of thing. In many cases, or in some cases, just putting down the truth was provocative enough, and it got us into all sorts of trouble. The trouble varied at different times. I mean, at one stage, during martial law in South Korea, the censors were going through the paper and they couldn’t speak English. And so they would chop out anything based on words, or anything they didn’t quite understand and anything else. So they were sort of delivering it like confetti about two weeks later. But it didn’t last that long. In Indonesia, individual copies of the paper, exposes on the Suharto fortune, very well documented pieces, they just banned those successive issues but didn’t take any further action against us. Malaysia at one stage banned the paper for three months and expelled both correspondents, and we took them to court. Bless their hearts, the Malaysians are not very well organised and  at that stage you could actually take them to court and win a case against the expulsions, and then they concluded they might lose the other one so they caved in and lifted the ban.

Of course, Dr Mahathir then fixed the record there by making the minister’s decision not appealable in future to the court. So he closed those sorts of loopholes. But you just have to have enough courage and enough belief that in the end, that it’s the truth: that it’s worthwhile to run a newspaper honestly and that you don’t get anywhere, in fact, if you start watering down stories, or doctoring stories or writing stories to please people. And I think you live and die by that reputation.’

There you have a master class in journalism in one answer. Barry Wain could talk easily about reporting honestly while not being deliberately provocative because that was a fine reflection of his own character. The principles were firm but the manner was ever courteous, and as he said ‘In some cases, just putting down the truth was provocative enough, and it got us into all sorts of trouble.’ That Wain line, like so many, was delivered with a grin.

Barry Wain was a fine Australia and a wonderful reporter. The choice he made to go to Asia in 1971 was exemplary and we will need many more of his quality in the journey through the Asian Century.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image credit: malaysiakini.