By PN Balji
Compressing 67 years of one’s life in a slim-fit book of 208 pages is no mean feat. Mano Sabnani has tried to do it in his Marbles, Mayhem and My Typewriter with an economy of words that Sabnani is not famous for. During his days as a reporter and then editor, Sabnani was painstakingly detailed at meetings that his colleagues referred to him as Manologue. That description stuck and Sabnani took it in his stride and when he started his blog, he playfully took a dig at himself and named it Manologue. It is with this kind of innocence that he looks at his personal life story, something that will resonate with many older Singaporeans who have experienced an existence which hardly gets told these days. The devoted son, practical husband, doting father, campus activist, cool-headed editor, keen corporate watcher and a questioning investor … Sabnani was all that and more.
But it is the brevity with which he writes his narrative that makes his book a letdown as some defining moments in his illustrious career needed some bells and whistles to make it a racy read. Such inclusions, especially during his three years at TODAY, would also have made it a meaningful read for a younger generation whose understanding of how the media dealt with the crushing blows of a government apparatus bent on making journalism subservient to its political masters have yet to be fully exploited. Sabnani’s book could have plugged that loophole.
Two incidents that marked – some would say marred – his journalism career happened soon after he became the chief editor and CEO of the TODAY paper in 2003. There was the not-so-well-known encounter with Lee Kuan Yew just after Sabnani took over at TODAY in 2003. LKY gave a speech at a constituency event criticizing the British medical care system. He had just returned from a trip to London where his wife suffered a stroke. He told his audience that if not for the involvement of Tony Blair’s office she would not have got the medical help she needed and compared the medical services of both countries. It was meant only for the ears of his audience. But TODAY reported what exactly LKY said; the others shaded their reports without going into the specifics. As expected, the report embarrassed LKY who had to issue a public statement saying he had mistakenly named 10 Downing Street as being involved in helping Mrs Lee get a CT scan.
True to form, LKY hit the roof and summoned Sabnani , Val Chua, the reporter involved, Rahul Pathak, the supervising editor, and Ernest Wong, Mediacorp’s CEO, to the Istana. They were cross-examined one at a time. The immediate effect of that Istana scolding was the editor’s decision to move the reporter to the sub-editor’s desk. Sabnani tries to solve the mystery of why TODAY published that report when the other papers had given censored versions. It seems that LKY’s press secretary had not briefed the TODAY journalist about not reporting the salacious details but had told the others. It is clear from the way Sabnani relates the story that the press secretary was to blame, yet nobody dared to tell LKY that. Sabnani does not say why he and his team were silent.
Another defining incident was the high-profile Mr Brown affair – an “unpleasant” incident, says Sabnani — which saw the press secretary to the then Minister of Communication, Information and the Arts writing a strong letter to the paper denouncing an article written by Mr Brown. The columnist, who was beginning to make a name for himself with his hard-hitting satire on social media, had listed a number of issues affecting Singaporeans in 2006. Among them was the increase in prices of electricity tariffs and taxi fares and means testing for special school fees. The language used in the column was unusually hard-hitting and brutal. Mr Brown is a partisan player in politics, thundered the press secretary. The government had just come out of a bruising election which saw the PAP’s share of votes drop from 75.3 to 66.6 per cent and its jitteriness every time an electoral setback strikes has been well known in Singapore. The matter would have ended there if Sabnani had not decided to drop Mr Brown as a columnist temporarily. Sabnani explained his decision to the staff this way: “I told my editors that I had people’s jobs and livelihood to look after. We have come this far (the paper has been in existence for six years then); it doesn’t make sense to fight this battle and lose the war.” The online world went into over drive with bloggers saying that the government forced TODAY to stop Mr Brown from continuing with his column, an accusation that must have angered the authorities.
Then came another Mr Brown aftershock. Some staff at TODAY protested by wearing brown in the newsroom. “I had heard about it but did not take it seriously. Then someone tipped off the senior management. One of them (from the management) came to see me a few days later and told me I had to keep control of the newsroom,” writes Sabnani. Who was that someone? The author leaves it to the readers’ imagination to make some educated guesses. But it was clear that the powers that be were not happy with Sabnani . He left soon after but again does not go into the details of whether he was forced out or he left voluntarily six months after his three-year contract ended. But he does say he was disappointed how his editorship ended, especially after the paper began to make a profit under his leadership. “It was unfortunate that my tenure ended the way it did,” he writes. That is the closest he comes to a criticism of the way things turned out for him at TODAY.
The Singapore newsroom is littered with such unfortunate stories. Sabnani teases the reader with brief mentions of the events that affected his journalism career. That in itself is a sad indictment of the Singapore journalism story where many editors take their tales to their graves. Some, like Sabnani, have bucked the trend but are still only prepared to tell an incomplete story and leave readers wanting more. Isn’t our journalism also like that, leaving many to wonder if the bottle is half full or half empty?