In his chit-chat on Storm on Thursday May 16 about his forthcoming book, Reluctant Editor, veteran journalist P N Balji described three Singapore Press Holdings journalists as giants of the local newspaper industry. They were Peter Lim, the former Editor-in-Chief, Cheong Yip Seng, his successor, and Leslie Fong, Straits Times Editor. I like to add to the public discussion, for whatever it’s worth. It seems to me that there is a certain urgency now to record the history of local mainstream media/press while they still resemble news platforms before they finally disappear into the Black Hole of irrelevance.
Balji is not entirely correct that there were only three trailblazers, each having contributed something substantial or meaningful to Singapore journalism often under trying circumstances. The author of Reluctant Editor himself is a giant. Worked in newspapers – in New Nation when it was a broadsheet before it became a tabloid, founding editor of Today, founding editor of The Independent.Sg. Branched out into broadcast, digital media, training. Helped redesign New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur. Above all, he continues to write and comment regularly on local politics. He is my definition of a giant, though he would be the last to say so.
An almost opposite of Balji in temperament was Leslie Fong, ST Editor and Political Editor. He was loud where Balji was soft-spoken. Leslie was the political insider, a kind of reference point for his colleagues when it came to politics. If you wanted to learn subtleties and nuances, you catch him, buy him coffee and find out. In my opinion, Leslie nurtured and built up a first-rate team of irreplaceable political reporters – trusted by both Establishment and Opposition. It was well-known that J B Jeyaretnam would not talk to anyone in The Straits Times except Ahmad Osman, one of Leslie’s political reporters covering the Opposition. Under Leslie, ST had its ears on almost every development in every union, party and coffeeshop in the heartland. And I know that the Political Desk held briefings religiously. The stories on the People’s Action Party and the Opposition then had credibility. The Desk did a no-holds-barred post-mortem of JBJ’s victory in Anson and defeat of the PAP’s Pang Kim Hin which I regarded as one of the best political insight spreads in ST’s history.
No doubt, Leslie was a giant. He went on to head the non-Chinese commercial section of SPH before retiring (I think). He still writes for ST and the South China Morning Post passing his time educating readers about China as he bashes the West and gets everyone hot and bothered. Don’t stop, please.
Cheong Yip Seng was Editor of New Nation before he was transferred to be Editor of ST and Editor-in-Chief when Peter had to leave. I am not going into any detail about him. You can read about his work and experiences in his well-known book, OB Markers. The story was that the book got him into some kind of trouble because the Istana occupants were unhappy that he actually spoke about government meddling (hitherto alluded to but never categorically stated in print by a mainstream local journalist). Dissident Francis Seow, writing in exile in Harvard, had devoted a whole book, The Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited, to the subject.
Some say Cheong was Editor-in-Chief by default. When Peter Lim left, he was there to fill the gap. But he grew in his job. Editorially, I recall at least three contributions. He pushed a culture of accuracy with his not too original but important insistence on “accuracy, accuracy and accuracy”. He set up overseas bureaus. And he could surprise everyone now and then with a stroke of genius. When Lee Kuan Yew first spoke about the problem of declining birth rates at the 1982 National Day Rally, the Prime Minister called on Singapore’s better-educated women not to remain single and, when they married, to have children. I had to write a leader on the speech – which went through six or seven drafts before we were told to take the last one as final, with the actual delivered speech interrupted by a string of off-the-cuff stories.
It was difficult to come up with a heading for the Page One lead (from which I would take the lead for my editorial). Cheong produced, what I thought, was one of the best headings ever that captured the whole affair brilliantly: Get Hitched.
His fourth contribution beyond the three would be his book, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story.
But if there is another book about the local newspaper industry after Reluctant Editor crying out to be written, it would be that written by Peter Lim. He was a ringside spectator in Singapore’s history – present at almost every major press conference, including when Lee Kuan Yew tearfully announced Singapore’s Separation from Malaysia.
Peter was not just a journalist and editor. He was a charismatic leader who did a lot to improve the professional image of journalists. He used his connections to help young journalists master the craft and learn how to tread the waters and to fight the longer war instead of the minor battles. He had a vision which did not quite fit in with the Establishment’s own grand plan. Many of us in the pre-Scholars Era of SPH owe him a big one for our good run when he was in charge. We still believed in meaningful journalism back then.
Before I leave you with that meaningful journalism thought, I have to say The Straits Times and SPH were not the be-all and end-all of Singapore print journalism. Apart from the fact there were other dailies like Singapore Tiger Standard and Eastern Sun, the Singapore Herald (an earlier full-blown daily and not the recent problematic website) had its own respected veteran journalists. Francis Wong and Ambrose Khaw were major editors in their own right. Because the Herald ran into a fight with the Government, it became diurna non grata. Today, few young Singaporeans have even heard of it.
No more giants today, anyway. Welcome to the new Singapore era of journalist pygmies.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.