All is well? Journalism in Singapore through the eyes of a Reluctant Editor
By Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Reluctant Editor
Author: PN Balji
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish, 2019
The Reluctant Editor has a forward by the prominent Singaporean lawyer and diplomat, Professor Tommy Koh, which tells us that the author, P N Balji “is one of Singapore’s veteran newspaper journalists and editors, and a very good one”. The narrative is not just an account of the Singapore media seen through the eyes of a veteran journalist as stated obviously on the book cover, but also a quick sketch of a man who is introverted and self-effacing.
We do not find the author talk much of himself or his work, but he does give an extensive report on the media history from the early 1970s to the early 2000s in Singapore, including episodes like the Toh Chin Chye case, where a false allegation was made in a newspaper report on an ex-minister of Singapore. PN Balji had been in editorial positions in The Straits Times (ST), The New Paper (TNP) and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Today.
The historic evolution of all the newspapers in Singapore and the government’s involvement in monitoring the media is clearly spelt out — even to the point of deciding what kind of newspapers were necessary for communicating with people. Described as a “brash” newspaper, The New Paper was started to bridge the gap between those who read and comprehended the one hundred and seventy-one-year-old newspaper, The Straits Times, and the people who don’t understand the ST. The New Paper was started to “speak the language of blue-collar workers”. A tabloid and later a morning daily, it needed a set of different writing skills as Professor Koh tells us in the foreword. His article in simple English had to be rewritten by the editor to make it comprehensible for the readers of TNP.
Balji writes: “This was Lee Kuan Yew’s idea. He wanted an English-language newspaper that mirrored the Chinese-language Shin Min Daily News. Although he did not articulate it publicly in so many words, shrewd politician that he was, he realised that many of his government’s politics and policies went effectively above the heads of those whose written English was at best perfunctory and that they might be easily swayed to vote against the political party of which he was the founder. This belief ran counter to his ambition to have every gap covered, every information vacuum filled. Nothing should be left to chance.”
Balji was asked to take up the challenge. He often had to meet government officials and ministers to understand how to put across his content as did the editors from other newspapers. Most just went with it as media was used by the government to reach out to the masses. Balji quotes a media watcher in a later chapter to describe the attitude of Cheong Yip Seng, an ex- Editor-in-chief of The Straits Times: “Cheong genuinely believed that being pro- government was nothing to be ashamed of.”
Is Balji voicing his own thoughts?
Given the fact that media is heavily mediated in Singapore and all major issues need clearance from various ministries, are the citizens and residents of the country badly off? TNP was after all peopled with unhappy, dissatisfied Indian journalists who left their country in the 1980s and 1990s for “young men remained unemployed for years” according to one of them. Another journalist who moved on to BBC, Soutik Biswas, gave a comparatively less bleak outlook,
“Singapore offered a better pay and a higher quality of life, and many moved to escape the grim realities at home, like many other Indians who emigrated to the West around that time.”
Despite claims that India has more press freedom than most, recently a report said: “India has dropped two places on a global press freedom index to be ranked 140th out of 180 countries in the annual Reporters Without Borders analysis.” Also, a question to ask ourselves would be why is it journalists and professionals left the country and continue to leave and major issues like food, potable water, electricity supply, housing and education remain unresolved?
In his annex, P N Balji has included a conversation with a media academic from Hong Kong Baptist University, Cherian George , where the latter says: “Singapore is not that bad, unlike some extremely dictatorial regimes where, if you are black listed, it may end your life or end your means of making a living. Here you cross OB markers (out of bound markers) and still put food on the table; it’s just that you have to moderate your ambition career- wise.”
After reading Reluctant Editor, one is left with a thirst to know more about the things not said. In this exclusive with Balji, we talked to him to hear more on the things left unsaid — of his past, present and future — getting a larger perspective on a man who has been a part of the history of Singapore media.
Question: Is media freedom a necessity? It has created almost an anarchic explosion of ideologies, beliefs as well as violence and hatred in neighbouring India. Is it a necessary thing for the progress of a country and people, especially looking at Singapore and India as case studies? Why is it a subject always under discussion, especially by Western Press, like BBC?
Balji: FIRST, in all this talk about media, whether in India, Singapore or the West, the word that is missing is RESPONSIBILITY. Nearly everybody talks about freedom of the press. But, tell me, who talks about a responsible media? And does media give THE truth in it reports. Media can give only some truths. Perhaps, Pravda is the only newspaper that gives THE truth as the Russian words means truth. Seriously, what media can do is to give a balanced story with both sides giving their versions of the truth and leaving it to the readers/viewers to decide.
Question: Reluctant Editor is a book which makes me feel that the media here is an extension of the explanation that the government wants to give to its people. Is this a fact? Has the scenario changed, not just in terms of social issues (like the set of rights, including animal, listed by Cherian George in the annex of your book) but in terms of political reporting?
Balji: YOU are being too kind to the media and the government. Reluctant Editor has enough examples that show we had editors, I call them the last of the Mohicans, who did their best to maintain the line between the state and the media, however fuzzy that line was. Some paid a heavy price. I don’t see that spirit in the present generation of editors. The present political and government leaders have become thin skinned in dealing with the media. One effect of this kind of control is the newspapers’ poor balance sheet performance. Of course, online media has had an effect, too. But that is another story.
Question: So, do you see social media or audio-visual media as a rival to the kind of newspaper journalism you had been practising? What has been the impact of social media on newspaper journalism?
Balji: We are already seeing the impact on both the revenue from the sale of the paper and advertisements. Newspapers are struggling to find a winning formula. They have yet to find one.
Question: What are the roles of ST, TNP and Today in Singapore? Which streams of population do the three newspapers address? As the standard of English varies according to your telling, do you look for different kind of journalists for each paper? Is there a different criterion for selection?
Balji: ST tries to be a paper for everybody and that is its problem. In doing so, it takes on a schizophrenic approach to news. If you look at the developed world, there are newspapers that cater to top, middle and lower sections of the reading public. In Singapore, ST and TODAY aim at the middle market and TNP the down market. Stories are selected according to the papers’ readership profile. But the elites are not fully served. As for the selection of journalists, yes, they have to be picked for their ability to communicate with their niche audiences. Language is very important here. Take TNP — its journalists need to communicate with a mixture of headlines, story, graphics and photographs to talk to their audience effectively.
Question: You have said in one part of your book that journalists need to know what people want and give them that. Then, who would be forming the public opinions?
Balji: Not so much what they want, but what they need. The public, if they are smart, will form their own opinions after seeing what is reported on TV, in the papers and online. That is kind of impossible to achieve in the short and middle terms. In the long term, it is achievable. Media must make this their goal.
Question: What made you write this book? Did you feel you needed to fill a gap as Cherian George indicated in his conversation with you in the SWF(Singapore Writers’ Festival) 2012?
Balji: The immediate inspiration was former ST Editor-in-Chief’s book, OB Markers. For the first time, a Singapore editor had put on record how the government manipulated and controlled the media. Although many had suspected that that kind of control and manipulation existed, no editor had put on the record the way Cheong had done. Singapore editors take their stories to the grave. My desire was to disabuse the popular belief that the media had always listened to the government. There was a breed of editors who wanted to maintain the line between state and media, however fuzzy it was. Chapters 3 and 10 give some examples of that.
Question: What do you see as the readership of this book? Who would be your readers? Do you see your book hitting the stands worldwide?
Balji: I expect journalists, former journalists to be interested in this book. Also, those who have an interest in media. I doubt there will be an interest in the rest of the world.
Question: What would be your stand and that of Singapore on what has popularly become known as “fake news”? Do you see any newspapers or news channels in Singapore fall prey to it?
Balji: Please google my two articles in yahoo on this topic. My views haven’t changed.*
Question: At the start of your book, you said you did not want to talk of your childhood as it was mundane. But there must have been a part of you that wanted more from the newspaper than sports columns? What was it that spurred you to opt for journalism and not something else like teaching or working in some other capacity? What made you choose this calling over any other when you needed a job?
Balji: I have explained that somewhat in my book. My interest in journalism was kickstarted by my father, who was an avid reader and a poet. He left behind a legacy for me. I picked up reading after watching him devouring any books and newspapers he could get hold of. That is how my interest in journalism started.
Questions: You have not told us much about your life outside of your journalistic adventure, but you seem to imply that you grew up in Singapore. When did your family move to Singapore? How many generations ago and why? Are you from the Indian subcontinent? Did your family move prior to independence and partition?
Balji: My life started in 1948 in a small village in northern Kerala called Azhikod in the district of Kannur. I was the first boy after five girls. I can imagine how my arrival must have been celebrated in my maternal grandma’s house. It must have been a joyous feeling in my family. At age one, my mother, five sisters and I set sail Nagapattnam to join my father in Singapore. He was working in the British naval base.
He had left Kerala many years earlier as a stowaway in a ship. He was angry with his mother for placing a red-hot stick on his lap after he was caught smoking. He didn’t speak much about it to us. In fact, he hardly spoke to us about anything. He was too busy writing poems, doing theatricals on stage and organising strikes as a trade unionist.
My dad was a true-blue socialist, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. He was an atheist, but he was never against people who believed in religion. He was against casteism. Over time these traits influenced my personal and professional life in a big way.
He never wanted to go back to India. When he was much older, I decided to take him to his hometown, Neeleshwaram, in northern Kerala. For him it was like entering his second childhood. From Chennai to his home town was a 15-hour train journey. He would get down at every stop and have a cup of tea. He was the only child. His parents had passed on. No relatives to speak of. I could sense of longing for his motherland. But he never mentioned it to me.
Question: That is interesting. What are your future plans?
Balji: My life is also taking a full circle. My wife and I are making plans to settle down in Kerala. We go back every year, staying there for two months every time. Now it is a half-way house. Soon it will become permanent. Call it reverse immigration.
Question: Are you planning on writing more books? Is your book going to be a part of SWF 2019? Are you going to be participating in any of the other sessions?
Balji: I am a one-book wonder.
I have accepted an invitation to talk at this year’s Singapore Writers’ Festival.
*Mumbrella :“I would summarise my views as: the law is necessary. But the devil is in the detail. By giving any minister the power to rule that ‘this is fake news’ is a bit overdone. No minister can be taken to court, for example, for spreading fake news.
“The significant thing for me as an observer of the political scene, was these were not just online activists taking a position against the government’s law on fake news. There were very responsible lawyers, at least two senior counsel; nominated MPs and some very respected lecturers and academics. Which I had not seen in Singapore in recent times.
“That must say something. Nothing has changed though and they stuck to their guns and so we have the fake news laws.”
Yahoo News: “Veteran journalist PN Balji, author of Reluctant Editor, tells Yahoo News Singapore’s Nicholas Yong that he does not think the Singapore will go to extremes in enforcing fake news legislation. A former editor at The New Paper and Today, Balji’s book details the numerous occasions when the government actively intervened in the mainstream media.”
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and Editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Kitaab.
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