S’pore press gang days over, says ex-ST editor

Those good old days?

Singapore is done with handling the press by grabbing it by the throat as it used to do in the “knuckleduster days” of the 1970s, according to the Straits Times’s former editor Cheong Yip Seng.

He does not expect the current government resorting to the Internal Security Act against journalists and said he felt the government would become “less heavy-handed” over time, and would no longer close down a newspaper.

Speaking at the launch of his memoirs on Friday, Cheong said even the “favourite instrument” of the government, to change editors in the newsroom, would be less effective over time.

His 432-page memoirs, entitled OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, recounts his 43 years as a newspaperman. He began as a cadet reporter in 1963, rising to be editor-in-chief in 1987, in which post he remained until retirement in 2006.

I have seen newspapers closed when they fell foul of the government, and friends lose their jobs. Journalists have been detained. I did not suffer their fate, but many were the times when I was at the receiving end of Lee Kuan Yew’s fury

Changing editors to operate in a way that, on the one hand, makes the Government happy and, on the other, protects the credibility and integrity of the newspaper, is impossible.

I have never sought permission, before the publication of an article, to publish. If it was worth publishing, we would go ahead and do it, and if there are consequences, we’d deal with them later.
retired editor-in-chief
The Straits Times

The title of the book adopts the catchphrase created by Lee Kuan Yew when he used a golfing metaphor to describe the limits to self-expression in Singapore. Golf courses have markers to denote when a ball is Out of Bounds, and therefore out of play.

“OB markers”, repeated with nauseating frequency and used for everything forbidden in Singapore, became a mark of the 1970-80s that Cheong describes, a shibboleth of Singapore’s ruling classes (the PAP, the civil service, the armed forces, stockbrokers, and the rest).

It meant toeing the line by knowing where the boundaries lay.

“Lee Kuan Yew, who maintained a close relationship with the top editors at SPH, features highly in the book,” according to a press report on the launch.

That would be inevitable in Singapore society of the latter half of the 20th century, and would be especially so in the professional life of an editor who wished to survive a long tenure, as Cheong did.

Though conditions in Singapore have changed, Cheong continues to see the need for knowing the boundaries. “While public discussion is being encouraged, the topics of race and religion, and issues concerning national security and foreign relations will remain sensitive and will still require restraint,” he was quoted as saying.

Singapore ranks at No 135 out of 179 on the press freedom index of Reporters Sans Frontiés and 150 of 175 ranked by Freedom House.
» What Najib doesn’t want you to know about press freedom
» Is Singapore ready for greater freedom of the press?
» Press freedom: The Singapore grip

Break an exclusive — then disappear into National Service
One of the anecdotes in the book is about an unnamed New Nation reporter who broke an exclusive in 1973 of how Singapore was recruiting Malaysians into the armed forces by offering them citizenship. Plain-clothed police turned up at the newsroom and whisked him away for interrogation. A week later he was served an enlistment notice, even though he had completed four years of National Service. Cheong said the story was known only to the newsroom, and the reporter’s family and friends.
» “Knuckledusters era” over, says former ST editor [Today]

One-line government statements – no questions asked
In the late 1970s, the government would issue one-line statements, as when it announced suddenly that deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee was put in charge of phasing out pig farms in Singapore. No other information was provided; requests for clarification went unanswered.
» ‘Times – and Govt – have changed’ [mypaper]



5 thoughts on “S’pore press gang days over, says ex-ST editor

  1. As an ex-journalist, having worked in Singapore with the OB Marker environment, I can say with some certainty that there was a time that Singapore journalists needed that unwritten guideline (or gag), generally known as the OB Marker.

    With a much more educated and enlightened Singapore populace that has the privilege of having travelled widely and having seen first-hand of peoples of other countries, especially the western countries, it is very understandable that they crave for more freedom and a press that is more free from government clutches.

    But given the geo-politics of the region, which hasn’t changed much, and the multi-racial and multi-religious mix of its people, I fully agree with Cheong when he says that “While public discussion is being encouraged, the topics of race and religion, and issues concerning national security and foreign relations will remain sensitive and will still require restraint.”

    Unlike countries like America or Britain, Singapore can never transform itself into a melting pot, given the prevailing sensitivities of race and religion. For their own sake and of their well-being Singaporeans will have to live with the lesser evil of some restraint on their freedom of speech and freedom of press.

    • You are just as much an apologist for LKY as Cheong has been. The paranoia about race and religion and internal security, and the engendered paranoia about Singapore’s survival has long been a smokescreen for LKY and PAP’s survival, rather than the survival of the state. Singapore is 85% Chinese – there was never any internal threat from race and religion being used by minority groups to take power. Singapore’s survival as a state meant keeping Umno’s rabid right-wing out of play and balancing relations with Indonesia. Neither of these required repression of the press, nor closure of the Singapore Herald or keeping the Chinese-paper group SNPL’s Singapore Monitor out of the morning market to protect the Straits Times’ monopoly. One million Singaporeans have emigrated over the years. Cheong’s going along with the system is no surprise, nor any surprise that the Singapore press continues to kowtow to LKY’s megalomania.

  2. Corrected version:

    I just need to remind you of the race riots of 1965. I was there and had suffered the pain of that episode of our history. We were all locked up in our newsroom and slept at night on our desks.

    The subsequent acrimony and the poltical polarisation on both sides of the Causeway, spearheaded by protagonists, the likes of Syed Jaafar Albar, assisted by Utusan Melayu, and Lee Kuan Yew led to the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, ending Tunku’s dream of turning Singapore as Malaysia’s New York.

    The domination of a particular race in the racial mix of Singapore is no guarantee to prevent such carnage from repeating again nor is it a sureproof that the minority race will not attempt to protest in the most violent way, if it chooses to, in order to protect as it perceives as its rights.

    We have seen this time and again.

    Your claim of paranoia “about race and religion and internal security” is not backed by facts. Rather, the claim is made out of the popular sentiments of those who believe that freedom and unfettered rights are the answers to all evils, especially to a newly independent country like Singapore .

    Like they say, sometimes you need to take a bitter pill to get a sure cure.

    True, the LKY-led PAP government time and again had resorted to heavy-handedness, especially in its dealings with the Press. But it was a time when Singapore, in its infancy of its independence in a volatile region, coudn’t afford the luxury of Free Press.

    As a former journalist, it pains me to say this but those measures were a much needed prescription to the survival of Singapore. Look at Singapore today. A tiny island state, whose contour can hardly be seen on a world map and with total absence of any natural resources, is today the envy of all nations. From an entreport to a thriving financial centre with one of world’s leading airport and seaport, it’s success story is beyond belief.

    Comapare Singapore with Malaysia, a country with much bigger land mass and endowed with all the natural resources and richness. And yet, the two are polls apart in all aspects.

    It is easy to seek the high moral ground. But it is a tough ask when it comes to providing the right leadership that delivers the goods. In the final analysis, that’s what counts.

    • You sound just like Mahathir going on and on about 1969 to scare people into voting for BN. There are plenty of apologists for Mahathir’s repression just as there are apologists for LKY’s repression. Sadly some of the biggest apologists for them are journalists preaching the same tired old national security and stability story since Operation Cold Store. I’m sure Seah Chiang Nee and Ambrose Khor, among other journalists of the time, feel differently about Singapore’s need for a free press. At least they tried, and didn’t have to apologise for having sucked long and hard at the PAP teat for their living. Repression is repression, whether in Malaysia or Singapore.

  3. I was not referring to the 1969 race riots of Malaysia. I was referring to the 1964 riots of Singapore. (My apology for getting the year wrong.)

    If my recollections of that fateful day in July 1964 were right, the whole issue centered on the demand by Umno-backed Malays in Singapore who wanted the same special rights granted to Bumiputras in Malaysia under the Constitution. LKY wanted nothing of that sorts. His clarion call was for multi-racial, multi-lingual Malaysian Malaysia where everyone had equal rights.

    However, he pledged to help uplift the Malays through education and jobs training to acquire needed skills. This row has led to a highly-charged atmosphere in which the race relations between the Malays and Chinese slumped to its lowest ebb.

    Prior to a planned huge procession to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday celebration, some Singapore Malays decided to protest LKY’s uncompromising position and staged a protest march along Geylang Road. Some Chinese by-standers allegedly taunted them. It served as a spark to blow up the tinder-box in an already highly charged atmosphere.

    My point is, I wasn’t referring to the riots to scare anyone. I am not a politician and I have no axe to grind. I was only referring to the riots as a lesson in history to be learned as regards to sensitivities in a multi-racial society. And, the Press has a big part to play in ensuring that nothing goes out of hand.

    In such a pursuit, we journalists sometimes have to make some compromises from our avowed ethical and professional standards.

Comments are closed.