There is something seductively honest about a book which, from the start, clarifies its humble mission. “NOT a memoir and does not pretend to be one”, it says. “NOT a comprehensive study of the Singapore media,” it adds. And, horrors, there are no photographs.
So what exactly is veteran journalist P N Balji’s Reluctant Editor?
Before that, why no photographs? Balji mentions the hassle of to-ing and fro-ing with Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp, including the “prohibitive” costs involved which he could ill afford as a retired newsman. For an editor like him, each photograph would have to be relevant and that would have meant investing time and effort to search and select (this part my interpretation). So I understand.
Still, it is a pity because photographs are just as important as words, if not more so. They help readers share the mood of a particular moment. Their absence is an opportunity lost. But, as I say, I fully understand. Some other people do have the support of an official paraphernalia of backup services earned or entitled through a lifetime of servitude or because the books were specially commissioned. I have known one British author who had had one whole company set up just to help him write a book on the local establishment. Complete with staff and access to confidential material. He took years to complete his work. And the book was launched in a posh hotel, attended by a who’s who of Singapore. Singaporeans must also be getting a bit sick and tired of all the “books” offering just one main one-sided politically correct narrative of how great or significant the establishment and their well-paid loyal servants were in contributing to the success of Singapore. One unvarying tale, one voice, one gigantic yawn.
Balji has opened the eyes of the publishing business with his book. I will not go in detail about the content of the book since it has been well publicised even before its launch on June 14 at the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop in Maxwell Road. Basically, Balji writes about his years at the Malay Mail, New Nation, The New Paper and TODAY, with a reference to his part in successfully setting up an increasingly popular The Independent.SG. He relates his encounters with the authorities, the results of errors of judgment by himself or staff or following his instinct as a professional journalist in the face of official pressure. These incidents include “the Toh Chin Chye Affair”, a bus fare hike story which got the then Transport Minister Ong Teng Cheong hot and bothered and publishing a story containing a police report filed by Workers’ Party’s Tang Liang Hong.
There was one incident involving him and me which was not mentioned in Reluctant Editor. This was in the 1980s. A coup took place in Thailand one morning. He called me up and said we should write a front page editorial on the coup. I went straight to the New Nation office in Times House, Kim Seng Road. I wrote a tight three-paragraph leader which said the coup should be welcomed if it could bring stability to the country. Ordinarily, for every editorial, I would supply a heading so that he could pay his attention to other stories. But as I did not know the final shape of the morning’s Page One for that special editorial, I left it to him to provide the headline. He used my welcome move as the heading: Welcome Move. But it did not have the qualifier – provided it could result in stability.
The coup subsequently fell apart – and we were left with eggs on our faces. S R Nathan, Perm-Sec at the Foreign Ministry and later the Executive Chairman of SPH, at a monthly meeting later looked directly at both of us and said: “People living in glass houses should be careful about how they throw their stones.
I am sure there are countless other stories waiting to be told. It’s how they are told that is the challenge in today’s Internet/Instagram/Millennial era. Balji’s book and its launch tell me that informality is the key to connecting with your audience.
First, do not be pretentious in your book. Convoluted language and analysis, as if you are eager to get everything off your chess and show off your knowledge, are a massive turnoff. Simplicity, clarity and humility – I find all these in Balji’s book. He says being a reporter was not his original choice. He wanted to work for the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau but New Nation got to him first. Then, when he was offered editorship of TNP, because he just had an angioplasty, he was reluctant and accepted the job only after consulting his wife.
Sometimes you have to be a street fighter. Balji found that out when he and TODAY had to take on the SPH juggernaut.
But today, you have to be innovative or you would not be able to connect with the Instagram crowd. The relaxed and casual launch of Reluctant Editor at the hip book café in Maxwell Road drew a big crowd of young followers, influencers and media professionals of every shade.
The Q and A format was spot on. Keep the speeches very short and let the author and audience engage in a conversation without the boring rah-rah of having a Guest of Honour predictably lionised as if he is the reason for the occasion when he is not.
If you think about the whole thing, it is just a book and we are all part of a journey of seeking the truth. Keep everything simple. No fuss. We are not Gods. Whether or not you are an ex-minister or an ex-top civil servant way past your expiry date or relevance to Singaporeans.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.