Interview with Steve Lai

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Steve Lai
Steve Lai

After graduating from the University of Gloucestershire with a BA Degree in Business and Marketing Management, Steve worked at the Brunei Economic Development Board. In 2009 he got his first opportunity to step in front of a camera, as a part-time presenter for News at Ten and World News on Radio Television Brunei. Prior to joining Channel NewsAsia in March 2012, Steve presented SportCenter Asia on ESPN Star Sports and worked as a broadcast journalist for the 24hr channel ESPNews. He currently fronts Primetime Asia and the Friday edition of Between The Lines on Channel NewsAsia. Besides being passionate about his profession, Steve also loves sport – especially mountain biking and has acted in several short films and theatre productions. Here we have the pleasure of bringing you a small insight into his amazing career.

Why did you choose a career in the broadcasting industry?
Initially it was my love for sport. I’ve always played and watched sport, so pursuing a job talking about it seemed like a perfect fit. About a year after moving to Singapore I won an online competition that led to some part-time presenting work on sports broadcaster ESPN. That got the ball rolling.

How does a Bruneian become a Presenter and Correspondent with Channel NewsAsia in Singapore?
I took a chance and sent a direct message to the Managing Director of CNA on LinkedIn, to see if they had any opportunities. Two days later someone from HR called to invite me in for an interview, screen test and written test. It all happened incredibly fast. That was three and half years ago.

You have covered many important events in your broadcasting career; from the last US Election to the Olympics in 2012. What has been the most memorable event for you?
It’s hard to choose. There have been many memorable moments. Hosting the morning show I got to interview the likes of Victoria Beckham, Malaysian singer Yuna, footballers Paul Scholes and Robbie Fowler and many more. By contrast, covering an overnight shift, I broke the news that former Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had died, which was a hugely significant event for Singapore. Most recently, I enjoyed doing live coverage of the SEA Games. Singapore put on a fantastic show and it was fun being part of it.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best part is that I am constantly learning. Everyday I’m learning about what is going on in the world and speaking to experts in their field to understand it better. The worst part is that the news is often very sad. Wars, natural disasters and other atrocities can often be depressing. But there are uplifting stories too. Ultimately, it’s a daily reminder that life is precious and time is short, we mustn’t waste it.

What advice can you offer Bruneians who aspire to have careers outside of the country?
Think about where you are and where you want to be. What is it going to take to get you there? And, what can you do today, right now, that will take you a step closer? Do that! For example before I moved to Singapore I started doing things that would help. I convinced Director, Siti Kamaluddin to give me a chance to present a documentary (she was kind, I was terrible) because I knew I needed to know how it worked and how to be on camera. Then, on top of my job at the BEDB I applied to RTB to present the news at night, starting in radio before they trusted me enough to be on TV. When I got to Singapore, I enrolled in voice classes and did work on voice overs, TV commercials and corporate videos. Anything that would get me more comfortable in front of a camera and help me present better. You have to do whatever you can to get yourself ready, so when the opportunity comes, you give yourself a fighting chance.

What, in your opinion, makes a great TV presenter?
Broadly speaking, a TV presenter should be likeable, engaging and genuine. A good presenter also has to be good at the stuff the viewer doesn’t see, like listening to instructions in an earpiece while delivering the news or while having a conversation with a guest. And lastly they have to be calm and confident. Things often don’t go to plan on live TV; news can break at any time and technology can fail when least expected. The TV presenter’s job is to make this seem as smooth as possible even if it’s chaos behind the scenes.

How do you overcome being starstruck when conducting interviews with famous personalities?
I’m still working on it. I interviewed a Foreign Minister recently, she was sharp and direct and I only had five minutes, it was a little intimidating. I got what I needed but came across more nervous than I would have liked.

Which famous personality inspired you?
There isn’t one in particular but there are some common inspiring traits that I’ve noticed in the successful ones. They all work hard and want to be better.

How do you describe Brunei to your friends?
I say it is a unique and wonderful place that has to be experienced to be believed. Everyone likes unexpected treasures.

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Photo courtesy of Steve Lai

You give the impression that you’re an extremely prepared person who begins with the end in mind. Things seem to have unfolded according to plan for you. Have there been any setbacks in your career? What did you learn from them?
Plenty, if you work in TV/media rejection and criticism comes with the territory. When I was freelancing I would get short listed for jobs (VOs, TVCs, Presenting) and lose out for any number of reasons. You can either stop putting yourself out there or stop taking it personally and work on the things you can improve.

Describe to us a day in the life of Steve Lai.
I haven’t done the morning show since last year but typically I would wake up at 3am to be at the office at 4am. I’d have two hours to get up to speed with the stories we were covering and prepare talking points for various segments. We’d go live from 6am to 9am and cover everything from hard news to lighter interviews. Depending on the day the interviews could be about health, fashion, entertainment, travel, sport or be with celebrities or acts that were coming through Singapore. After the show I’d work on stories and segments for the next day or later in the week. That would involve arranging interviews, scripting or going out and shooting stories to make packages. I’d finish around noon and head home for a nap. I’d have the afternoons with the kids which was nice but I’d have to go to bed around 8:30pm to start again at 3am. I enjoyed the show as it had lots of variety and I got to meet interesting people but the hours were tough.

It surprised me when I read about how you took on various voice training lessons to become a presenter. For some reason, I thought that perhaps you had a natural talent for this as it seems to run in your family, Steve Lai and Allen Lai.
I’m still a work in progress. I was 32 when I got to Singapore and decided to pursue this career so I needed to get up the learning curve as quickly as possible. It was intimidating competing with people that had been in the game for 10 plus years in some cases. Natural talent plays a part, but work ethic, persistence and how quickly you can adapt are more important qualities. My brother Allen was a great role model. Not just because he was a newsreader but because of his work ethic. When he was at UBD, he had two other part-time jobs, one of which was reading the news.

What’s next for Steve Lai?
I started presenting Primetime Asia in January this year, Channel NewsAsia’s most watched bulletin. I also recently started fronting our daily sports show (SportsWorld). So I’m feeling incredibly blessed at the moment with work. Maybe doing something in the digital space would be good, as that’s where things are going. In the meantime you can follow me on
Twitter: @stevelai and Instagram: @stevelai_

This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2015 Issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!