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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Sep 98
A Stitch in Time and
Other Lessons from the Annex
An Apprentice Salutes Mr Kee on his Retirement

N. Sivasothi (Text)
Kelvin Lim (Figures)

mouse and inkIntroductions
In 1987, I was sucked into the world of the Mudskipper by my enterprising classmate and Chief Editor, Stephanie Chew. The large crew she had assembled laboured in frenzy over the magazine in those final three weeks during the holidays. Approaching the group only to submit an article, and within days, I was quickly promoted from writer to software support to copy editor and finally to editor. I knew I had arrived when one day, Stephanie brought me up to the hallowed higher realm of Mount Olympus no less.. the fourth floor and residence of the office annex. To the eyes of the Mudskipper crew, the innocuous little room was sacred ground, the seat of Zeus, and few were permitted to set eyes upon Mr Kee and the Gestetner Offset Printer.

Stephanie cackled and giggled as she usually does, but Mr. Kee wasn't talkative, he merely looked down and nodded resignedly, spouting several "okays" and sounding rather crusty when he did say something. Boy, oh boy! In the days of reverence to capable elders, we were on tether hooks, and each meeting was like judgement day. At least at first...

However, when the previous Mudskipper Editor, a third year student called Goh Keng Wee was around, Mr Kee was totally different - he was chatty and they indulged in a little back slapping. Our eyes boggled at the camaraderie for Kheng Wee had obviously earned his stripes the previous year. He was also a good mentor to the two of us and amongst the many things he told us was that our eventual relationship with Mr Kee would reflect our worthiness as Editors of the Mudskipper. We didn't really figure out what he meant then, for Kheng Wee had a propensity for philosophical thought that sometimes escaped us.

mouse with paper clipsThe Printing Team
Printing the thick issues for the then large membership was tedious, but Mr Kee's reticence would have scared off fainthearted attempts at helping. Stephanie's skinny (okay, slim) frame could cackle through adversity and I nervously followed her lead. We kept turning up despite his obvious lack of enthusiasm, for he would wave us away and go about his printing, leaving us with no instruction.

With Kheng Wee's advice and her own observation, Stephanie figured out what we could do. We ignored Mr Kee's disavowments, muscled in and sat in front of the printer, watching out for crumpled pages that had to be snatched during the split-second window of opportunity. Miss that and the whole machine jammed and required a restart, a tedious process which broke the momentum and ate into time considerably - the fragments of the tattered paper had to be carefully removed and the plates had to be cleaned of scattered ink, else all pages would be blotched. A stitch in time saves nine, as it were.

So the two or three of us would sit in the small cramped room, us students crouched over the printer, staring at the fast spinning rollers ready for the quick grab, while Mr Kee rested one hand on the machine, as if to monitor its heart beat. Sometimes he would take a step back and forth as he wiped his hands with a solvent-soaked cloth, peering over to check the quality of the print and from time to time raising the odd page to peer at it short-sightedly. The smell of ink and oil filled the air against the rhythmic background of chugging rollers. We hypnotically watched the printer roll off crispy pages of "The Mudskipper", giving birth to the magazine all of us had laboured over for months, from the time of recruitment to the point of pasting the final caption.

mice with white-outOffset Printing 101
Mr Kee's silence wasn't encouraging at first, but as we spent more time in front of the machine, turning up whenever we said we would without fail, we felt comfortable in his taciturnity. I don't require much encouragement to talk, and I started asking him about the machine. Over several days, my genuine enthusiasm triggered a course on the specific use of the printer and general principles of printing, punctuated by little snorts of respect while he did a little two-step, talking about the machine, which I can remember even now.

I was interested in most aspects of publications - writing, editing, design assembly and printing. Having managed to develop all aspects working with a dynamic team during the preparation of the magazine, Mr Kee provided the instruction for the last phase: printing.

Despite obvious disadvantage of communicating with me in English, he was actually a good teacher who kept each lesson simple, focusing on the principle of the matter making it easy to remember and released little gems here and there from the wealth of his experience. I picked up the tricks of the trade after spending enough time with him.

The principle of the machine was no different from the printing presses of the major newspapers, which later stood me in good stead. I was much the apprentice learning the skills of the trade from the master - he would make little nods of approval each time I executed new instructions precisely and chuckle with pride and delight every time I figured something out, which was motivation indeed! With his encouragement, I watched as the team did the covers in colour. This required precise alignment of several plates, a complete change of ink and cleaning, and individual runs for each colour on the same sheet. That turned out well and we were quite pleased with ourselves!

An ethic he practised and preached was that a little care could go a long way in eliminating problems of consequence. Like watching the paper for jams, or loosening paper sheets before insertion into the machine, or stopping the machine to wipe off a small blot on the plates and the daily maintenance of the machine.

We had earned our spurs
By the time we had finished the first issue, we understood what Kheng Wee had said - by now we were enjoying that same rapport with Mr Kee.
mouse amazedmouse leaping over thumb tacks
He had a respect for capable, enthusiastic and hardworking students and his approval was quite frankly a reflection of the quality of the editors.

A young society with little tradition, we had one that has been maintained over the years - the first copy of the publication was always presented to Mr Kee by the Chief Editor, in the presence the senior editors, with thanks over tea. A simple ceremony, no doubt, conducted with varying formality, but a tradition started before my stint as editor, which was maintained to the present time. Mark Richards, the current Chief Editor, 12 years down the road from Kheng Wee, knows this.

The funny thing is that since his name is Siak Fook Kee, he was hailed as "Ah Kee" by his department kakis. BSS students (myself included) added the honorific "Mr" when dealing with him, and so he was erroneously called Mr Kee for time immemorial, when he should actually have been Mr Siak!

The relationship with BSS wasn't always dandy over the years. We have had varying standards as far as Editors go, and once or twice, an incensed Mr Kee complained to me, not seeking solutions, but just telling me about "these kids nowadays..." Usually, it boiled down to attitude, for we had bad editors as well as good ones. Like Kheng Wee said - it reflected the quality of the Editors.

The end of my rotation in Mudskipper didn't end the visits to the annex. I was there from time to time, to see what he was up to. There were times when he stayed back to finish some lab schedules and when I happened by, I would adopt that old anti-jamming monitoring position and discuss printing matters or department stories. What we particularly enjoyed talking about were the short cuts and manipulation of the machine's potential be it the offset printer or the xerox machine. Freshly printed lab schedules for undergrads were evaluated - condemning the ones that looked the same after decades, or which were total copies of a book, and appreciating the worthy ones. Mudskipper was similarly appraised, some were good and others not. Note that he was not stingy with praise and had reasonable standards.

Some of us maintained an interest in publications after the Mudskipper - Kheng Wee's first job after graduation was with a printing company. Over the years, I would bring to Ah Kee some of my handiwork for discussion and evaluation, be it simple lab schedules, a lightning quick cut and paste (the scissors and glue sort) Zoolympics posters or technical publications like the Essays in Zoology, the Raffles Bulletin volumes and The Asian Otter Newsletter. Now, the last of these was a modest publication and it was a rush job with an extremely limited budget. Hence, he found it the most interesting - I had to pull everything out of the hat where design content, layout and printing were concerned, and even managed midrib stapling, after some instruction from Ah Kee. The following morning, he laughed when he saw the result and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up! He said it was good as a print shop's and yes, I did feel pleased with myself!

In August this year, I returned from a conference in Amsterdam and discovered that he had retired. Gone, no longer to haunt the annex. Apparently he had turned 65 on 9th July 1998 and the department held a send-off party for him. It was a rude shock to me. Mark Richards was the last Editor he dealt with. I was thankful for that at least Mark had a good relationship with Ah Kee and he would have left with fond memories of the BSS crew.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say. To some, Ah Kee was just another one of the department staff. Reach out to the people around you and you may discover their depths and be changed for the better.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Kok Oi Yee, Cynthia Lee and Kee Peck Wai who checked the draft.

Yes, I too will leave with fond memories of Mr Kee. I never knew that printing 'The Mudskipper" could be such a time consuming process. Mr Kee did not print the issue you have in your hands; the editorial team had to do it themselves this time round. I think I speak for all the past editors of 'The Mudskipper' when I say that we are truly grateful to Mr Kee for all the support he has given us. For me, 'The Mudskipper' stands out among all the other glossy student publications in NUS. Not only do students write the articles but they also do the printing, sorting and stapling for 'The Mudskipper'. We are also not allocated a budget by the department for the production of the magazine. Profits the society makes from field trips etc. help pay for the cost of publication. It is a laborious process but is also well worth the effort! Mark
© N Sivasothi, 2001