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Singapore Press Club Hall of Fame: Why were Ambrose Khaw and Francis Wong not inducted?

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Sense and Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Singapore Press Club has just inducted 50 media personalities – past and present veterans – into its Hall of Fame. Excellent and timely move. Many of those who made it were fully deserving, particularly as I can personally vouch for quite a number of them, having worked with them in my career as a journalist.

Peter Lim, Cheong Yip Seng, Leslie Fong and PN Balji were the giants of local print journalism in the history of post-independent Singapore. Each in his own way has contributed to the development of the Singapore press. Above all, I aways admire them because they were writing journalists, people who do (did) not just manage and edit. They write, put their neck on the line  – and, “erm, get into trouble”. 

Cheong’s OB Markers : My Straits Times Story was revealing in detailing to the public the pressure that Singapore newspaper editors faced in a society controlled by an authoritarian government. Fong continues to rile many readers with his commentaries on East-West relationships, with an all too rare East Asian perspective. Being one of the rare bilingual editors (besides being editor of The Straits Times, he was also Chief Editor of Shin Min Daily News), it would have been a waste if he had stopped writing. In Reluctant Editor (his own book) and Transition (a book about him), Balji has touched on his some of his run-ins with the powers that be.

Among other award winners, these deserve special mention:

  • Conrad Raj, who made his name for being the journalist who helped expose one of the biggest bank trading frauds in history. In 1995, British merchant bank Barings collapsed after Singapore-based “rogue trader” Nick Leeson made huge trading losses on futures markets to the tune of £827m (US$1.4 billion). It was Raj who uncovered a handwritten fax by Leeson addressed to Barings, saying he was near a nervous breakdown and tendering his resignation.
  • Tan Wang Joo, former Sunday Times/Sunday Nation editor and magazines editor (Her World), who would be, in some journalists’ eyes, the local equivalent of Anna Wintour, Vogue’s take-no-prisoner editor on whom the film The Devil Wears Prada was supposedly based. Maybe not in the fashion sense but certainly in her unrelenting expectations of perfection – and ultimate story projection. Even her supervising senior editors dared not argue with her, I was told.
  • S Chandra Mohan, former Singapore Broadcasting Corporation director of news and current affairs, who I remember for breaking a cardinal broadcasting rule and capturing a historic moment for posterity. Lee Kuan Yew was announcing Singapore’s separation from Malaysia on 9 Aug, 1965. At one stage, LKY started to get emotional and was tearing. Chandra Mohan, who was covering the announcement, reflected on this later. He said it would have been standard broadcasting procedure to move the camera away and let the newsmaker compose himself before refocusing it on him. He decided to break the rule because he felt that the moment was historic and had to be conveyed to Singaporeans for eternity. Chandra Mohan was right. He did not get into trouble at all and history has much to thank him for.
  • Lyn Holloway, former Singapore Press Holdings chief executive, who, I believed, had done more for independent journalistic professionalism than most of the establishment appointees all the way to the disastrous Mr Umbrage who probably deserves a place in the Singapore press’ hall of infamy (not fame) for allegedly sinking SPH. Holloway, Peter Lim and Denis Tay (the SPH COO), who is also an inductee, sought to upgrade the status of SPH journalism to attract better talents. Many of the hall of famers would not have joined SPH otherwise.

My final observation (for now): I accept that awards can be arbitrary, even though they may follow certain criteria. They may not be comprehensive enough and may not satisfy everyone. But I would humbly suggest that they ought to be more inclusive. Recognise everyone who have made their contribution to media in Singapore, including those who had never seen eye to eye with the establishment. 

Any Singapore Press Hall of Fame would be suspect and incomplete without two big names –  Ambrose Khaw and Francis Wong, two key figures behind the Singapore Herald. I will just reproduce, in parts, a piece written by Mary Lee, who was a recalcitrant SPH columnist like me and who came to The Independent.Sg at the same time as I did.

She wrote on August 22, 2019:  

“Ambrose Khaw is gone. He’s lived a long and full life. Ambrose, with Francis Wong and Jimmy Hahn, started The Singapore Herald in 1971. It was my first job — hired out of university because Francis was a friend of my professor, Dennis Enright. Francis thought enough of prof to speak to his class of final year students.

“I loved being a reporter — it enabled me to continue my undergraduate lifestyle. We junior reporters didn’t have much to do with Francis, but Ambrose was there every day, sitting at the centre of the ‘horseshoe’ where the paper was put together.

“The Herald’s office was in People’s Park Complex in Chinatown — the first such mall then. It was busy, full of foodstalls, shops and people and Ambrose’s voice rose above it all.

“He was a charismatic leader of men and women and had a strong social conscience: he introduced the concept of an Ombudsman to the paper, and that drew a lot of attention from the government, which was uncomfortable.

“National Service was in its early years and the Herald had a flood of letters from parents about why some and not other boys were called up. As a result of the attention which the Herald threw on National Service, laws were introduced to ban all discussion in media.

“As a rookie reporter, I also learned about the power of government — government notices and advertisements were withheld from the Herald, so funding of the paper became a problem. Francis and Jimmy turned to Aw Sian in Hong Kong and Donald Stephens in East Malaysia for funds and that led the government to ban all foreign funding of media since.

“Ambrose was so charismatic, he encouraged us to go to the streets to sell the paper, which we were more than happy to do. But we were not able to save the Herald.”

Khaw was the Herald’s and Chief Editor and Francis Wong, the Editor.

If they cannot be in the local media’s Hall of Fame, I wonder who else have been left out, for whatever reasons.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also manmaging editor of a magazine publishing company.

Send in your scoops to news@theindependent.sg 

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