Reluctant Editor: Veteran Journalist Opens Up About Politics, Media and Censorship

“Singapore journalists hardly write stories about journalism. Many of them take these stories to the grave.” - PN Balji 

Take a step back and look at Singapore's media through the eyes of veteran newspaper journalist PN Balji. The 70-year-old veteran spent nearly 40 years working in five newsroom including The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper (TNP) and the now-defunct Malaysia Mail and New Nation. Through his no-frills writing, he brings back the drama, mostly played behind the scenes.

Are the published stories you read in the papers entirely the truth? Maybe not always. Intrigued to find out more? Here are 5 unpublished backstories you never knew:

1. The New Paper was Lee Kuan Yew’s idea

Back in the days where Singapore’s media was tightly controlled, The New Paper seemed like a misfit in the print industry. Here’s a little known fact: this tabloid was the brainchild of Lee Kuan Yew, who wanted an English version of Chinese tabloid Shin Min Daily News. Despite not having verbally articulated this, the shrewd politician in Lee Kuan Yew aimed to have every information gap covered so the People’s Action Party (PAP) remained omnipresent. This eventually birthed The New Paper, an oddball in Singapore journalism with its bold reporting and attention grabbing headlines.

 

2. Goh Chok Tong suffered a personal and political blow from the 1991 election

After then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped down, Goh Chok Tong decided to call for a snap election in a mere three years after the last General Elections, marking the Parliament's shortest term ever. His approach was to advocate a more consultative and open style of government, but the plan backfired as PAP lost an unprecedented four seats. 

 

3. The 1997 General Election

“The 1997 election campaign turned out to be one of the most toxic in recent history”.

Rookie politician Tang Liang Hong, a lawyer and Workers’ Party candidate for the Cheng San Group Representation Constituency (GRC), was seen as a triple threat by PAP due to his eloquence in both English, Mandarin and Malay. PAP had intended to prevent the opposition from getting into Parliament via the Cheng San GRC contest.  

During opposition politician JB Jeyaretnam’s (JBJ) speech, he revealed that Tang had filed a police report alleging that 11 PAP ministers had called him an “anti-English educated, anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist”. The ruling party’s ministers retaliated by accusing JBJ and Tang of libel, demanding $12.9 million in “exemplary and aggravated” damages from Tang. Since then, Tang has fled the country and not returned.

 

4. The infamous Toh Chin Chye affair 

Sensationalism remained as prevalent in the 1990s. The infamous Toh Chin Chye incident reiterates the importance of fact checking, which can be often overlooked in thrill of covering an exclusive. 

Long story short, veteran crime reporter Yaw Yan Chong’s negligence resulted in a misreporting of former Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye being arrested for a hit-and-run accident causing a 17-year-old student to be killed. The culprit turned out to be a 33-year-old salesman with the same name. 

 

5. Fear became pervasive in Singapore in the 1990s 

Balji observed that conversations involving government policies and personalities would quickly turn awkward and end abruptly. During such discussions, some would even look over their shoulders to check for eavesdroppers. 

Subsequently, Balji wrote about this trend in a column in the October 1999 issue of The New Paper, concluding that “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 the bright imagine a conspiracy at every corner, you tell me, how to become a world-class country?”. 

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Back in the days, a job in mainstream journalism meant having to make tough decisions, sometimes against the authority's will. With a life that was lived so dangerously, what made the editors of the 1970s, 80s and 90s act the way they did? 

Balji weaves a compelling narrative in Reluctant Editor, supplemented with anecdotes, of an alternative story of how some of his generations’ editors managed to hold the ground in those challenging times.

Uncover more in this 195-page book and get 20% off from now till 31 Aug. Get yours now here.