Venturing Out

After working at The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, award-winning journalist Sui-Lee Wee (CS’06) joined The New York Times’ Beijing bureau last month, in her latest venture as a journalist abroad.

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Yearning to have more opportunities to learn as a journalist, Sui-Lee Wee ventured abroad and never looked back.

After graduating with a Masters in Journalism (Business & Economic Reporting) from New York University in 2008, Wee worked as a foreign correspondent in the U.S. and Hong Kong.

In 2010, she decided to settle in Beijing as a China correspondent for Reuters, a role she gladly took up as she has always been fascinated with the country’s history since her junior college days. 

“There are 1.3 billion people with 1.3 billion stories – you will always have the sense that history is being made,” said Wee.

And her fascination with China continues to grow. In her latest undertaking abroad, the 33-year-old left Reuters’ Beijing bureau to join The New York Times’ Beijing bureau last month. 

Covering the healthcare and consumer beats in China, Wee’s first story at the NY Times detailed the outrage from Chinese consumers towards Samsung, which excluded China in the global recall of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones.

Calling the NY Times her “dream news organization,” she said, “I’ve always admired the kind of reporting and writing by the New York Times.”

“More importantly, it would give me a bigger platform to learn as a writer and a reporter,” added Wee, who was an intern journalist at the Associated Press in 2005. At The Wall Street Journal, Wee was a real estate reporter, and while at the Reuters’ Beijing bureau, she mainly reported on human rights.

One of her notable works was an investigative article for Reuters, part of a five-story series titled “The Long Arm of China.” The series explored how the Chinese government deals with its critics, particularly those living outside of China.  

“You learn all these different tricks. For example, you have to quickly email yourself in case they rip out the pages from your notebook.”

Sui-Lee Wee,on reporting in China

In writing about how the Chinese government attempted to intimidate its human rights activists in the United Nations Human Rights Council, Wee had the opportunity to travel to Geneva, Switzerland to meet these activists.  

There, she witnessed first-hand how the Chinese government kept tabs on its critics. 

She saw, for instance, a Chinese diplomat photographing an activist from Tibet, violating a ban on photography in the halls of the UN. The Tibetan monk had been preparing to tell the UN Human Rights council his story of being imprisoned and tortured back home.

Using this incident as the start of her article, Wee said, “I guess that was a serendipitous moment. There are many moments in journalism where you just have to be there at the right time," she said.

The series eventually won the team of 20 two awards – the Bob Considine Award by the Overseas Press Club of America, for best interpretation of international affairs; and the Online Grand Prize by the Human Rights Press Awards for best reporting of human rights in Asia. 

But her time as a foreign news correspondent at Reuters’ Beijing Bureau was not all smooth-sailing.  

Due to a tightened political climate after Chinese President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2012, she faced troubles gaining access to interviewees, especially government officials.

“There were a lot of people who were not willing to engage with the foreign media. And beyond that, whenever I travelled, I would be tailed by the local police,” she added.

In a nation cautious of foreign journalists, the local police would chase Wee away whenever they spotted her on reporting assignments.  

"They actually make it very clear that they are tailing you, so you know that you are being watched,” she said.

To lose the police, she would split ways with a colleague if it was a team assignment or use her ethnic Chinese appearance to blend in with the locals.

“You learn all these different tricks. For example, you have to quickly email yourself in case they rip out the pages from your notebook,” said Wee.

The country’s grip on the foreign media has also led to questionings by the Chinese police during the annual renewal of her visa.

“We are watched by the government, there are no secrets," she said, adding that while these are tactics used to “intimidate” journalists, they do not pose real and immediate danger.

Despite the challenges, journalism is still the “perfect” job for Wee as it combines two of her passions - storytelling and writing.

Looking back on her time at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, she fondly remembers the numerous late night talks she had with like-minded aspiring journalists.

“We would stay up late and talk about different issues - politics, current affairs and gender issues. It was a melting pot of ideas, and I am still best friends with a lot of people I met in WKWSCI,” she said.

She credits her Final Year Project supervisor, Dr. Cherian George, and Assistant Professor Andrew Duffy for furthering her interest for journalism.

“Prof Duffy taught me how to write a different form of writing, a magazine sort of writing that is humorous and fun," she recalled.

Voices in the following sequence: Esther Fung, Serena Ng, Sui-Lee Wee AUDIO PODCAST: BENEDICT YEO

Wee is one of several WKWSCI alumni who have taken their reporting careers abroad.

This includes Gillian Wong (CS’05), who was appointed Greater China News Director of the Associated Press in February, Esther Fung (CS’07) and Serena Ng (CS’00).

Since 2010, Fung has been working overseas and she recently joined The Wall Street Journal’s New York City bureau in August, covering real estate. 

Prior to her move to the U.S., Fung, 31, had also been working in China, reporting on property at the Journal’s Shanghai Bureau for seven years. She had first considered working in China after her professional internship stint at Peking University.

Calling her move to New York “a new adventure,” Fung said, “It was necessary for me to again, step out of my comfort zone, learn new things and explore new markets.”

Among the stories she has written there so far, she particularly likes one about how U.S property developers intend to reduce parking spaces in their projects.

“Many people are emotional and territorial about parking, and it was interesting to see how interested parties make their case in the face of opposition,” said Fung.

Sharing the same New York office as Fung is yet another WKWSCI alumnus. Serena Ng (CS’00), a reporter at the Journal since 2006, said that it was former WKWSCI professor Tan Lai Kim who got her thinking about working in the U.S. 

“You really haven't seen the world if you have only been working in Singapore.”

Serena Ng

“He showed us this video of The Boston Herald with a clip of him at his desk, and I was like ‘wow’ because the American newsroom looks so vibrant and exciting, and I thought it would be cool to work in the U.S. one day,” said Ng.  

Recalling the financial crisis in 2008, Ng, 39, said that she was glad to be part of “a momentous time in history.”

“I wrote about how banks, investors, and insurance companies lost a lot of money during the financial crisis, and why they ended up taking up so much risks,” said Ng, who was part of a team that wrote a series of stories about the crisis. The team was later named a Pulitzer finalist for its journalism work.

Comparing her experience working at the Journal with her stint at The Business Times in Singapore, Ng said mistakes are more easily spotted at the Journal due to its readership of two million. “It’s a difficult thing to deal with ­because when you make a mistake, it’s already public and there are so many people who have read the paper,” she said.

Despite that, she strongly recommends WKWSCI students to work abroad. “You really haven't seen the world if you have only been working in Singapore,” she said.

Likewise, Wee advises students to take a “leap of faith” and venture beyond Singapore’s shores.

"Do it,” she said. “Do it without hesitation, because if something goes wrong you can always return, but you don't want to be left wondering if you should have applied in the first place."