Singapore had editors in the mainstream media “who were prepared” to resist pressure from the Government for the sake of good journalism, said veteran journalist PN Balji in a roundtable conversation organised by Future of Singapore (FOSG) on Saturday (22 May).
Mr Balji, with over 40 years of experience in Singapore’s journalism, has worked at five newspapers – Malay Mail, New Nation, The Straits Times (ST), The New Paper (TNP), and TODAY.
During the roundtable conversation, he described his transfer to ST as more of a “forced entry”, given that he was left with no choice when New Nation closed down, indicating it was the “most difficult period” throughout his journalism career.
“Because I have always worked in underdog publications, and to go into a kind of a very straight-jacketed newspaper with a straight-jacketed newsroom structure was very difficult for me to adjust,” he remarked.
Mr Balji shared his experience working in ST, where he attended “many meetings” chaired by the editor-in-chief of ST, saying how some editors who attempted to disagree with the Government’s requests would end up paying the price.
“We had editors who were prepared to kind of tell the Government, even to [founding Prime Minister] Lee Kuan Yew, that if you force us to do this, this is not going to be good for the Government and the media,” he noted, citing examples from the former editor-in-chief of ST Cheong Yip Seng’s memoir.
Mr Balji recalled when former editor-in-chief Peter Lim received calls from James Fu, the late LKY’s press secretary, who conveyed LKY’s request to publish opposition politician Chiam See Tong’s O-Level results during the 1984 election.
In 1984, Chiam See Tong contested the Potong Pasir seat against the People’s Action Party (PAP) Mah Bow Tan and won with 60.3 per cent of the votes.
Mr Lim, however, refused to publish the full results as he was convinced that it would backfire against the ruling party PAP and the media.
Consequently, he resigned from his position and has never spoken publicly about it.
“He gave a one-line answer in Mary Turnbull’s book on ST, and that one line answer was that ‘a member of the board told me my deputy was ready to take over’. At that time Peter was 53 years old,” he added.
Mr Balji also cited the former editor of ST, Leslie Fong, who was nearly sacked from his position over a column he wrote on ST.
“I know this because I was at the meeting where Leslie actually mentioned this,” he noted.
According to him, the late LKY had instructed the then-executive chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Lim Kim San to sack Mr Fong, but in turn, Mr Lim made a deal to allow Mr Fong to keep his job but stopped him from writing columns.
“Leslie paid a price, he didn’t become the editor-in-chief which is a normal route – editor of ST becomes the editor-in-chief – and he was moved to head the China desk,” he added.
ST reported in 2016 that Mr Fong has retired from the SPH at the age of 66.
These incidents might have discouraged current editors of ST to even argue with the Government, said Mr Balji, pointing out that they fear the risk of losing jobs in ST and good salaries.
“Not to forget Han Fook Kwang who was the editor of ST and the 2011 elections, the coverage in ST was to my view one of the fairest in recent times. What happened to him? Soon after, he was removed and Warren Fernandez was brought in as the editor,” he added.
Mr Balji went on to share about his discussion with a senior minister a few years ago, during which he told the senior minister to stop all the ministers from making speeches.
He pointed out that most of the ministers’ speeches were “dull” with repetitive points, and the kind of words they used do not fit into modern society.
To his surprise, the senior minister did not put up any defence during the meeting, but instead, he asked for more elaborations from Mr Balji.
“I came out of that meeting quite hopeful. That was a few years ago but obviously things have not changed. Maybe the minister that I met had tried to do something but the cabinet or somebody else didn’t approve,” he added.
Liberalisation of media
Speaking of the liberalisation of media, Mr Balji highlighted that the Government had previously announced in the year 2000 that it aimed to liberalise Singapore’s media.
But their definition of liberalisation was to grant licenses to the SPH to start two TV channels, and allow MediaCorp to launch TODAY, said the veteran journalist.
“A good friend of mine told me many years ago that this is not liberalisation, this is proliferation. We have more TV channels and maybe extra newspapers. But this is not media liberalisation,” he added.
Mr Balji also shared his experience of working in TODAY, saying that about 30 years ago, the team came up with the idea to do “analytical reporting” when planning for the concept of TODAY newspapers.
One of the reporters asked during the team meeting, “But won’t the Government get angry with us?”, to which Mr Balji replied that he believed that former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong will not interfere with the publication.
“In that three years I was there, Goh Chok Tong never interferes,” he noted.
Despite that, Mr Balji noted that some editors from ST had attempted to campaign with the Government and questioned why TODAY was allowed to do such reporting.
He then decided to meet one of the ministers to explain the publication’s approach in its reporting, in which he was told by the minister not to worry as he understood “the game that’s being played”.
“I think it’s quite sad to see the kind of journalism that we have in the mainstream media, and I’m so glad that we have active social media,” said Mr Balji, adding that he acknowledged the “serious discussion” are being raised on social media nowadays.