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PN Balji looks back at giants in the industry, but expresses fears for the future of journalism in Singapore

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Ignoring government demands, refusing to rat on government moles and paying the price of abiding by journalism ethics: Former ST veteran editor joins ex-newspaper chief editor in revealing what went on behind the scenes.

Singapore—Kannan Chandran of Storm Magazine interviewed veteran journalist and editor PN Balji on Facebook Live on Thursday afternoon, May 16. Balji has written a book, “Reluctant Editor”, which will be launched next month. Also at the interview was Balji’s fellow journalist Irene Hoe who had edited his book.

When asked what inspired his book, Balji refers to “OB Markers” by Cheong Yip Seng, former editor-in-chief of The Straits Times (ST): “It was not a book that I would have expected that the longest-lasting editor-in-chief of the ST would write.”

He went on to say that because of the revelations in Cheong’s book, many people realized that editors during Cheong’s time were “not as they had thought.”

According to Balji, they had not given in to everything. There had been times, he said, that they had done what the government had wanted but there had been other times when they had not. This had caused some to have paid a heavy price, and others, a smaller price.

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When Balji started penning down early drafts of his book, he hadn’t a clear theme in mind. But, he wrote on anyway.

“In organized chaos, I started writing chapter by chapter, and the book grew by itself.”

The last chapter, he says, is called “The Last of the Mohicans” which lists who he considers to be industry giants Peter Lim, Leslie Fong, and Cheong Yip Seng.

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He finds himself remembering some of the things they had done, calling them, “A band of editors at that time … some people would say they were brave.”

Balji gave some examples of his experiences as a newsman.

During the year of the bus fare increase, the transport minister at the time had called for “the most unusual press conference I had ever attended,” recalls Balji. At the press conference, the minister had demanded to know who had leaked information to Balji and his colleagues, all the while not knowing that the informant had happened to be sitting in the conference with them.

What had been even more unusual, adds Balji, is that the then ST editor Peter Lim had decided to publish a blow-by-blow account of what had transpired in that interrogative press conference in the newspaper the very next day

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It had been at that point when Balji had felt so happy to be a journalist — a word that begun to take on new meaning for him.

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He feels, however, that young journalists today may not share the same sentiment.

During his time, he believes that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had so many other priorities that he did not have a lot of time left for concentrating on the media.

Storm Magazine’s Kannan also asked Irene Hoe about how the book had impacted her.

She said that she had discovered many things — the details and struggles that had gone on behind the scenes. And, like Balji, she believes that today’s journalists are a different breed from those of yesterday, opining that journalists today have a completely different way of approaching stories.

Balji did not seem to be very optimistic about the future of young journalists in the country: “I think once they come into the newsroom, things change. The newsroom changes them.

“The young journalists, the bright journalists, people who come in to do good work won’t last long. They come in with a certain passion … and then they find out that many of the things they want to do, can’t be done.”

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Balji certainly had his share of demotivating incidents but he was also lucky to have enjoyed the support of his bosses and colleagues. He recounts how he had once published the Prime Minister’s Chinese New Year message in New Nation, even though they had been told by the PM’s press secretary that the message had only been intended for the Chinese-language newspapers.

When the press secretary got upset, the CEO had put his arm around Balji and told him not to worry because they would take care of the situation.

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To end the first part of his interview, Balji talked about the tremendous pressures that journalists today face: low circulation, social media, as well as pressure from the government, who would like to have the news reported in a certain way.

“The government wants to have its cake and eat it,” Hoe agreed. “It wants to be able to project its messages through the mainstream media, social media, and any other media, and project it in a certain way.”/TISG

Read related: PN Balji: Ink in his veins


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