Insights on the Malaysian Automotive Scene with Chips Yap, Editor-In-Chief at Motor Trader
Can you tell us more about Motor Trader?
Motor Trader appeared in the Malaysian market towards the end of 1998, patterned after the magazine of the same name in the UK which was very successful. In fact, it was started in Malaysia by the same man – Sir John Madejski – who had started Motor Trader in the UK. The magazine set the trend in the Malaysian used car classified advertisement market. It offered the placement of a color picture of the vehicle that was put up for sale alongside the relevant details. This opened a whole new approach to selling used cars in 1998 and set the benchmark in the local auto industry making it the top reference publication for used vehicles in the market.
As the internet grew in popularity and usage, the company also set up a website which, like the magazine, was also popular although it had a different, younger audience. One of the strengths of the website was its public forum which could have been considered ‘social media’ since Facebook didn’t exist yet (or it was just starting off). The forum allowed consumers to discuss, complain and voice their opinions which many car companies took note of.
As the market continued to evolve, Motor Trader has also changed its approach. Today, it has taken on the theme of Car Life Partner and offers services and products which interact with the Malaysian public at various stages of their car life journey, primarily via the website, Motor Trader Online, and magazine, Motor Trader: The Motoring Guide.
The aim is to empower the Malaysian car-buying consumers through education and enrichment of automotive knowledge. Of course, it continues to connect potential car buyers and eager sellers.
When Motor Trader first appeared, the car industry was in a severe state of recession due to the Asian economic crisis and we thought it would not last long. 20 years later, it is still in existence and has become a household name for those who want to buy and sell cars as well as keep up with the latest happenings in the automotive world.
How did you get your start in journalism & end up as the Editor-in-chief at Motor Trader?
I was studying to be an architect, following my father’s footsteps. But it seemed like a boring profession to get into so after discussing with my parents, who were very supportive, I switched to journalism as I enjoyed writing. The downside was that my stay in the UK was considerably shorter than would have been the case if I studied architecture.
When I got back, I began to look for jobs in the publishing industry. I asked a friend in The Malay Mail how I could get into the line and she told me ‘Just go in and tell them you want to write for them!” I took her advice literally and decided to try my luck at a paper called the National Echo one day. They had a weekly motoring column and I felt I would like to do it, so I went to their office and asked to see the editor. When I entered his room, I explained that I would like to do the motoring column and it must have been my lucky day because he said, “You have come at the right time as we are looking for someone to do it.”
That was how I got started and 6 months later, the editor of Asian Auto, one of the two car magazines in Malaysia, asked if I would like to join them. That was in 1977 and I’ve been with the industry since then.
I became associated with Motor Trader in 2000 when they asked me if I would be the editor of Autocar ASEAN, a magazine they were planning to start publishing. I was not so keen because I had been editor of different magazines for so many years and what I really wanted to do was write rather than be involved in management, so I recommended a friend who took the job and I just did a monthly column in the magazine as well as a weekly one in Motor Trader.
In 2005, the company decided to give serious attention to its website that had really been unknown. By then, I had gained experience in the website field as I had been with Autoworld for several years, so I moved over and developed the website and there was a lot of satisfaction in seeing it grow and become popular.
Over the years, as the team grew, my role varied, and the boss eventually persuaded me to look after the editorial department. But as I had good editors handling the two magazines then and they could function autonomously, I was able to maintain my focus on the website work which is really a 24/7 & 365 days job. I had to keep publishing new content since people expected it.
What are the perks of being an Automotive Editor?
To those looking in from the ‘outside’, I guess the perception is that we have a great job being able to test the latest cars. But as I often tell newcomers, you are a writer first and a motoring journalist second. Many have come in saying that the reason they want to join is that they love cars and just want to drive them. That’s not the attitude I like and usually, I don’t take them on.
Each field of journalism has its perks – travel writers would get to go around the world; those who do lifestyle may get to dine at fine restaurants or stay at 5-star hotels. In our case, it would be getting to drive the latest cars, I guess. We also get invited overseas for some new product launches and that’s very nice.
In my early years, before the internet, overseas trips were less stressful. Today, when we get to a hotel in some city, it’s back to work, especially for those who are doing online content. It’s even tougher because the organizers may have tight schedules so there is limited time to do work. It’s even worse if you are in a different time zone and for me, it’s tiring because I usually get up before sunrise to work as I will be out the whole day and then usually get back to the room late after an official function. This is the part most people don’t know and imagine we’re having a good time. I say that it would only be a good time if I am invited and don’t have to write anything – but companies will expect their ROI, of course!
How do you decide what news to feature on Motor Trader?
Obviously, it must be related to cars and the automotive industry since that is what people come to Motor Trader to read about. Besides the latest news, there are test-drives and features which are of interest to people. We try to find a balance in the sort of articles to provide but where news is concerned, it is hard to plan since there are always new developments.
In line with our theme of being a Car Life Partner, we have also begun to provide more articles that are useful to readers, especially motorists. One of the stages of a ‘car life’ is ownership and so we want to help make that experience enjoyable by providing readers with knowledge on a variety of subjects.
What changes has Motor Trader’s evolution from print to digital brought about to your operations?
Generally, for many publishers, the onset of the digital era has had a profound effect because business models have had to change. In Motor Trader’s case, the magazine and website had been existing independently in a sense and this was a strategy from the start. The reason was that I had seen how sales of magazines started to decline when they started to have websites and the simple way was to just put the magazine content on the website. But to readers, it then seemed pointless to pay money to buy a magazine when you could get the content for free by going to the website.
My approach was to operate independently, and this gave the magazine its own style and character as it was done by another person while I had my own way of presenting news and articles on the website. Though the news might be on the same subject, it was presented differently and the content on the website was not necessarily found in the magazine and vice-versa. I think that approach worked well except that as times get tougher, publishers may decide to just duplicate content and that obviously impacts the print side more.
Automotive journalism requires you to conduct research on automobiles by interviewing manufacturers and automotive experts to write about them. What challenges have you faced in doing so thus far?
Generally, global car companies provide comprehensive information on their products, so we have a deep understanding when we write. Being able to also talk to engineers is a bonus but we don’t always get that opportunity as we are far away from the centers of the auto industry like Japan, China, Germany, and the USA.
Malaysian motoring journalists have been noticed overseas because we ask a lot of questions and are conversant with the subjects. It also helps that we can converse well in English, so we can interact more efficiently. For journalists from some countries where they are not so comfortable using English, they must go through a translator and that makes for a less satisfactory interaction.
Over the years, I have seen how the younger generation of Japanese engineers can speak English readily and that makes a world of difference! In my early years, the engineers usually spoke in Japanese and then their statements and answers had to be translated and likewise for our questions.
Having worked in the Automotive journalism industry for over 40 years, is there any advice you can provide to aspiring Automotive journalists?
I made the point earlier that when you come into this branch of journalism, you should do so with the primary aim of writing and spreading knowledge to readers. The motivation should not be ‘so I can test Ferraris’. I used to tell people that it is hard to find motoring journalists because I can find people who are technically knowledgeable or great drivers, but they can’t write well, and I can find plenty of good writers, but they lack knowledge about cars and the auto industry and they are not keen to learn much. There is also no substitute for experience and you must be patient and go through years of gaining knowledge.
As a veteran in the Automotive field, what changes have you witnessed in the industry over the years?
I suppose in both the field of automotive journalism and the auto industry, it is the speed of change that has altered. This can be attributed mainly to technology, especially communications. As I said earlier, when I started out, an overseas trip was not as strenuous because we would be ‘disconnected’ from the office. Today, other than when we’re inside an airplane on the way somewhere, we’re connected to the office and to our working life back home. Things happen faster and that is evident in just about every industry.
I miss the days when I could arrive at a hotel on an event and have time to use the swimming pool. Now, I am lucky if I can have time to freshen up because I must use the free time to work and then rush back out again for the next appointment!
What trends & developments are you currently keeping tabs on in the Automotive scene?
The auto industry is vast and there are so many interesting areas. Most people simply look at the cars but there are so many technologies that are constantly advancing and changing. It has been exciting to be able to watch and report on the industry over such a long period.
What is your dream car?
I don’t really have a dream car though I would say I like SUVs. I look at car ownership from a practical point of view and though it may be nice to go around in a Lamborghini, I think it is somewhat impractical for daily use. I can’t afford to buy one just for weekends; in fact, I can’t afford one at all! But I guess I am lucky that I do get to drive some great cars from time to time