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.
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]