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For over two decades, reading Ms Sumiko Tan's columns was one of the first things to do on a Sunday for many - whether you did it because you loved them or wanted to pan them.

In the words of former Straits Times Life editor Richard Lim: "There were those who bragged they hated her columns, but lapped them up all the same."

But while Ms Tan's tell-all columns were often the topic of water- cooler talks on a Monday morning, the 53-year-old executive editor of The Straits Times shies away from being called an influential figure.




It is why she had her reservations when she toyed with the idea of including photographs of herself and her family, that have never been shared, in her new book, Sundays With Sumiko - a collection of 74 columns written from 1994 to last year.

"I'm a nobody, just a normal person. Is it a bit too much to have something like this?" she asked.

Despite being asked many times before, she agreed to publish the collection only because of the recent hiatus after a 22-year run, during which she had written more than 400 pieces. She chose to drop the personal column to focus on her interview series, Lunch With Sumiko, that was launched in January and appears in The Sunday Times' Insight section.

Arranged in chronological order, the 74 columns chart the trajectory of her life's journey: confessions about the stigma of singlehood, finding love in her late 40s, and the difficulty of coping with her new roles as wife and stepmother.

So why put them all into a book?

"Other than the vanity of doing it?" she quipped.


Image: ST


There is the intrigue of how the columns capture the life of a woman born in pre-independence 1963 as she transitions through Singapore's development, she ventured.

In one of her 1998 pieces, for instance, she wrote about the ache of bidding goodbye to the Chinoiserie disco at the Hyatt Regency hotel; in another 2004 piece, she extolled the virtues of her Nokia mobile phone's SMS function.

The book counterpoints different periods in her life, which has also allowed her to glean new insights about herself.

In a column that drew more than 100 responses in 2002, she declared that she would never shell prawns for her partner in public, and defended Singaporean women, seen by some men as being too argumentative. Some lambasted her for her lack of feminine "charm".




Ms Tan had not wanted this particular column to go into this book - "it was not very well written" - but eventually relented. "But that was me at that particular time. When you're younger, you're more self-assured, you don't really give a hoot what other people think," she said.

"If I were to write a column now about prawn-peeling for my husband, it will be different, perhaps in terms of the tone or approach."

She does not aim to represent all women, or write "just for the sake of being personal".

Mostly, her writings capture "the preoccupations of an ordinary life": a failed relationship; a dog dying; a friendship that has been lost. Inadvertently, they may also capture how people felt "at that particular stage in Singapore, when women were expected to work and be independent, yet had other desires".

She knows that she has earned brickbats for her pieces, which some have labelled self-indulgent. "I think it comes with the territory (of a personal column). Especially if you've been writing for so long, you're bound to have people who don't like you," she said.


Image: ST


But she does not lose sleep over the negative feedback, which she has observed tends to come from men more than women. She also never thought of changing her writing style to appease her critics - and kept true to herself. "If I write things that are more 'serious' (because of them), then it wouldn't be the column that it is. If you lose that voice of being yourself, of being authentic, then what's the point of writing a personal column?" she added.

Mr Lim, 68, who was helming Life when the column first started, said the appeal of Ms Tan's columns was that they were "written simply and straight from the heart".

"She revealed much of herself and yet remained veiled. Followers of her columns ranged from clerks and secretaries to doctors and lawyers. There were those who bragged they hated her columns, but lapped them up all the same.

"People talked about her columns as they talked about the previous night's TV soaps... we will not get another personal writer like her."


Article first published on StraitsTimes