PN Balji’s book title, Reluctant Editor, is a misnomer. He is one of the most committed journalists I’ve worked with and he is never shy of stepping up when the situation demands it. The title perhaps reflects his quiet confidence to lead but it does not do justice to his other characteristics and qualities or to his ability to play coach when he is no longer the steward. This book by a gifted story-teller who toiled tirelessly under one of the most authoritarian leaders of our time is a time capsule of yesteryears.
If he was reluctant, it was probably because he was consumed by the fear of being incarcerated and having to face the ramifications of speaking his mind. His book is a kiss and tell story about how he danced with the powers that be and how he managed to practise his craft without being thrown in jail.
I had worked with him in theindependent.sg newsroom in 2013 and 2014, and it seemed like seldom a day passed when he didn’t speak about what it was like being an editor when Lee Kuan Yew was at his rogue best – on how the media was used to amplify defamatory statements so that LKY could inflict maximum damage on his opponents and on how journalists feared the very presence of this one man and the ever present prospect of losing their jobs.
Balji doesn’t shy away from a good fight either. Even when he was in his sixties, a couple of years ago, he was ready to step into the ring for one last time, with his gloves off this time. He did not show any reluctance or hesitation. He volunteered as the first editor of TISG.
He felt liberated. He felt he could finally put the pen back in the hands of the writers. However, he was frustrated that our own attempt to kickstart this publication was met with much red-tape. Starting with the incorporation matters at ACRA, to registering the website to finally having the Infocomm Media Development Authority ask us to register theindependent.sg as a socio-political site and in the process limiting our ability to raise capital.
Under this regime, bona fide commercial media operators like ourselves are not able to find a meaningful exit for our investors. He was disheartened.
In 2013, there were also whisper campaigns – potential investors were asked not to touch us with a ten-foot-pole and the initial startup funds that we committed was exhausted by the end of 2014. In 2015, TISG went on a hiatus because we ran out of funds.
What I’m going to say next is not a spoiler because I have not mentioned this to Balji before and I don’t think it is in his book either.
Sometime in 2014, I was summoned to the office of one of the ministers and I remember very vividly getting a earful about PN Balji. I was told that Balji did not toe the line as an editor and that I need to be careful about the company I keep. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
I haven’t read the manuscript yet, but I suspect that his book, Reluctant Editor, is filled with juicy details about him being the Rogue One of the media industry in Singapore.
He constantly reminds me that editors are the vanguard of journalism, maintaining both the ethics and voice of the publication. Building on his philosophy and journalistic ethics, today, we practise defensive journalism to protect our writers from running foul of the punitive laws in Singapore.
Balji and I both admit that we didn’t get the business right initially, but we have it down to a science, now. We have learnt how to deploy talent in the most efficient and optimal way. Today, Balji together with Tan Bah Bah, a former Straits Times leader writer, mentor our younger journalists. Balji is also a special media advisor to TISG.
Above all, if there is one thing that I have learnt from Balji, no matter what, never throw a fellow journalist under the bus. And he would say the same thing about a source.
As far as I’m concerned, Balji never quite retired as an editor, as reluctant as he may seem, he still thinks that there is some ink left in his veins and I’m glad that he has found that pen in his hands.
“Reluctant Editor “by PN Balji is published by Marshall Cavendish and is slated for launch in mid-June.