Professor Bilveer Singh once wrote: “the traditional mass media in Singapore, both domestic and international, do not enjoy the privilege and right to play the role of the “fourth estate” of the state. The media’s role, according to the PAP, is limited to supporting government policies aimed at creating a stable, growth-oriented society.”
Indeed, you don’t need to be a professor to realise that. Only the most naive will not realise that the media in Singapore is a government mouthpiece. In much cruder terms, the late David Marshall described our media as a running dog and poor prostitute of the government and I personally use the word “newsPAPer” rather often, a book of “confessions” like PN Balji’s Reluctant Editor delivers two contrasting revelations.
Firstly, the book removes any doubt that the media is indeed a government mouthpiece even though active journalists themselves have officially denied it. Secondly, Balji tries to portray himself and many others like him, as ethical, self-respecting journalists who did try to be fair with their reporting while being fully aware that if they ever offend the government or the PAP, it will be their blood that will be on the floor.
The book begins with the author’s childhood, his education and how his father had influenced him. He plunged straight into the deep end of journalism after finishing his A Levels, only to be traumatised by editors from hell like Jackie Sam. Learning the tricks (literally tricks) of the trade while reporting for the New Nation in the 1970s also got him into trouble with the CPIB. Balji has been charged in court and fined $1000 for corruption.
As the chapters in the book are not in chronological order and no timeline is given, I find it a bit difficult to follow Balji’s career. There is also some repetition and distracting backtracking as a result. Chapters in the book focus on milestones and significant moments in Baliji’s career.
While we are all familiar with SPH’s monopoly, Balji reveals that it was never Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s intention only to have one newspaper. Balji wrote in the book :
LKY knew the value of ST as his propaganda machine, but he was also sensitive to the paper’s need to get Singaporeans to read and support it. He made sure it had no competition, allowing the paper to make lots of money, but he realised that the downside of a lack of competition was a possible slide in standards and a loss of readership, and so the Monitor was finally born.
Formed in 1982, the Monitor was actually cannibalised from The New Nation which was closed down even though it was profitable. However, even though Balji describes it as a “breath of fresh air”, The Monitor turned out to be unprofitable.
Balji had a short stint with ST and he described the atmosphere in the newsroom thus:
ST had little choice but to keep a tight rein on the newsroom, with an ever-watchful and ever-suspicious officialdom scrutinising its reports; one misjudgement might lead to an internal inquiry, a rap on the knuckles and perhaps force the company to move certain journalists to other departments.
Officialdom is even embedded in the organisation. They had former Permanent Secretary SR Nathan at the helm, later replaced by ex Cabinet Minister Lim Kim San. These are things we already know, but it’s nice to get some affirmation from an insider.
Even with the demise of The Monitor, LKY was still keen on having another newspaper for folks who find the ST too heavy. The New Paper, the author’s baby, was born in 1988. Unfortunately, the initial response from the public was lukewarm. The paper seemed doomed. That’s when Balji et al decided to take the paper downmarket, sensationalising headlines and dedicated much of its editorial space to sex, scandal, crime and football. The paper took off after that, with circulation swelling to 100,000 at its peak.
Like nearly all other SPH editors, Balji had his own “Lee Kuan Yew moment” which happened while he was with The New Nation as acting editor in 1981. Lee Kuan Yew delivered a Chinese New Year message (on the eve of CNY) in which he lauded the achievements of the HDB but at the same time warned that as more young couples got their own flats, traditional families were getting splintered, leaving the old with no one to look after them. The Chinese papers published the message, but The New Nation was advised by LKY’s press secretary James Fu not to publish it until after the first day of Chinese New Year.
The New Nation’s editorial team saw no logic in this embargo since the information was already in the public domain. With the publication of the news in the Chinese papers, even those who didn’t read Chinese would have known about it. Balji et al went ahead and published LKY’s message. The response from LKY came fast and furious. He wanted the editor identified, accusing him of practising “western-style” journalism (as if it’s a crime). Balji feared the worst. LKY was known to have imprisoned journalists without trial, blackballed them or forced them to leave the profession or even the country. Fortunately, nothing happened to Balji even though The New Nation was later shut down for perhaps other reasons.
Other journalists like Mary Lee were not so fortunate. Her thought-provoking columns rubbed LKY the wrong way, earning her demotions and warnings. The newsrooms felt under siege, with journalists looking behind their backs and self-censoring their work. Mary eventually became an editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review. In 1985, she wrote openly to LKY:
“Ease your control on Singapore and in 25 years’ time, the island will have grown into a real garden city where a hundred more flowers – some wild, but all beautiful – will bloom naturally.”
Balji agrees with her, adding that today’s leadership is struggling to find ways to allow the wild flowers to bloom. Mary Lee returned to The New Paper after 20 years and again stirred controversy by commenting on ministerial salaries. She was punished with a demotion and pay cut.
The most sensitive part of the part touches on a report TNP made during GE1997. Workers Party JB Jeyaratnam told the rally that Mr Tang Lian Hong had made police reports against LKY and 10 other PAP politicians. The contents of the report was supposed to be confidential but then editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng asked Balji to obtain the report from the police and publish it. Balji knew that the police would never release the reports to the press. Somehow, it arrived by fax. TNP published the reports and the WP candidates were sued.
Balji wrote in his paper:
“Would people debate freely if the fear factor hung over conversations that some deemed controversial? As long as the government is perceived as Big Brother waiting to pounce on those who are critical of policies, and as long as the talented and bright imagine a conspiracy at every corner, you tell me, how to become a world class country?”
He promptly got a call from then Minister David Lim. Officialdom’s use of fear and intimidation is legendary. Even someone like Leslie Fong had once crossed swords with George Yeo whose stand was: “Our MPs may be wrong but the Government will protect them at all costs.”
New OB markers were drawn every day, the “open and consultative” government of Goh Chok Tong notwithstanding.
While Balji was undoubtedly proud of The New Paper, it was a tabloid that wasn’t in the same league as ST. His biggest achievement perhaps, was running Today in direct competition with ST, delivering news and analyses which the latter could not deliver. It was a tall order and the playing field was hardly level. They had teething problems with the printer and their delivery trucks were even followed by ST spies. Today took off nonetheless. While it may be true that it carried some features on opposition politicians, I never saw it as something very different from other newsPAPers.
The competition was bloody. SPH ventured into TV. Mediacorp ventured into publishing and both were losing money in their new ventures. There were rumours of a deal to “merge” and end competition on both fronts. Balji approached Mediacorp chairman Kwa Chong Seng (nephew of Kwa Geok Choo) and asked pointedly whether Today was a guinea pig. Somehow, they managed to convince Temasek Holdings that they could hold their own. Today reached breakeven around 2003 and Balji’s successor Mano Sabnani made it profitable in 2005.
The final chapter Last of the Mohicans is quite educational as it shines a light on the former top people in the industry. Balji describes Cheong Yip Seng as a political animal completely clued to LKY’s thinking. He couldn’t understand why he wrote OB Markers. Nobody saw him struggle with his principles while running a government mouthpiece. Perhaps he did not want to leave behind a legacy of being known as a government lackey.
In contrast, Peter Lim, Cheong’s predecessor, stood up against the government’s demands a couple of times. Once was not publishing the details of Chiam See Tong’s scores as LKY had demanded (but his grades were still published) and in another instance, Peter refused to name the informant from SBS who leaked news that SBS was going to increase bus fares. Peter subsequently paid the price for not being totally subservient to the government. He was made editor of The New Paper instead of being promoted to editor-in-chief of the group.
Then there’s Leslie Fong whom I’d always seen as a pro-government character before I stopped reading newsPAPers some 25 years ago. Balji however, says that he has “a commitment to show his staff that every story, even stories that are politically sensitive, could be published if care and subtlety could be applied.”
Unfortunately for Leslie, he got into trouble for defending Sumiko Tan’s article which was critical of a certain MP (I have no idea when that happened). When it was Leslie’s turn to be promoted to editor-in-chief, he was brushed aside.
The book ends with a collection of postings from social media, by Balji himself or notable journalists like Cherian George. It also includes an article on and a subsequent response from Singapore’s most undiplomatic diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan.
Overall, I would prefer the book to have been written chronologically. Balji’s revelations are not surprising, but perhaps I’ve not been reading closely enough in the past, I’m unaware of some of the nearly heroic things that the editorial teams have done. The fear and subservience however, need no revelations. Suffice to say that the reluctance of these reluctant editors have never been obvious to me.