Sunday 21 October 2012

An insider's account of govt-media relations

Ex-ST editor Cheong Yip Seng takes readers behind the scenes in book
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 20 Oct 2012

FROM strikes by journalists in the 1960s that won them a five-day week to the merger of the Chinese newspapers in the 1980s, and the day the People's Action Party lost its absolute dominance of Parliament in 1981, former Straits Times editor Cheong Yip Seng has given an insider's account of government-media relations in a new book launched yesterday.

In OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, the veteran journalist takes readers behind the scenes, from private Istana lunches to conversations with top government leaders that shaped the media landscape today.

But in retelling the past, Mr Cheong - who rose from rookie reporter to editor-in-chief of the Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay Newspapers Division over an illustrious 43 years - also hopes to show that the media scene is changing for the better.

The tough "knuckleduster" approach adopted by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the 1960s and 1970s had given way to a "hard sell" of the government line by its leaders in the 1980s, he said. And with the political landscape changing rapidly, the Government's heavy-handed approach of the past would inevitably lighten over time.

Out-of-bounds (OB) markers is a golf term commonly used to refer to the limits to the freedom of expression that Singapore's leaders believe are needed for effective governance.

Yesterday, at a panel discussion lasting 11/2 hours at Singapore Press Holdings, Mr Cheong defended his belief in the Singapore media model and explained why he spent four years writing the book. One of them was "the value of a mainstream media that does its job".

He said: "I believe that if you do not have a dedicated group of people who gather the news, process the news and disseminate it well, I think all of us in this society, I think we'd go wrong."

Asked how he managed to last 43 years even as other editors were edged out, he replied: patience and optimism.

"I decided that handling this tricky relationship requires enormous patience. But I believe patience will be rewarded."

This was borne out in his observation that journalists now have more room to operate in. "If Singapore develops socially, culturally, it is inevitable that the public will demand more political space."

The Government will not resort to the Internal Security Act to act against journalists as it did in the early years of his career, he said, nor will it close down a newspaper. Forcing changes to the leadership in the newsroom would also be less effective over time, he argued.

As he saw it, the turning point from the "knuckleduster" era came around 1987, when Mr Lee decided to step up government efforts to engage with the people, and the media, he said.

Despite the revelations in the book, he did not think it would "cause problems" with the Government, which was prepared to defend its position on media "to the ends of the earth". "I don't think there is anything in the book they are uncomfortable with, that they will not be able to defend."

The book, published by Straits Times Press, is sold at major bookstores for $34.78 after GST.

Q & A with Cheong Yip Seng

Are you troubled by the perceptions that the media is docile and Government- controlled?

Look at the political conditions in Singapore today - how is it possible for me to control the flow of information? Look at the policies that are being discussed in public today, whether it is the influx of foreign workers or the cost of public housing - now every policy is under the microscope and it is partly at the initiative of the Government. The Government is forced to engage the public. Why? Because it needs support for these policies, because some of the policies are tough for some people... In a society like Singapore where there are so many different interest groups, I do not think that it is possible for the Government to control the flow of information, that certain critical facts, critical insights or perspectives are suppressed. It is just not possible... in this digital age.

When did you suddenly realise that the knuckle duster era had ended?

I cannot absolutely say what the turning point was but my guess is that this was in 1987 or 1988 after the GE. The first prime minister (Lee Kuan Yew) decided that he was going to very actively engage people... and I could sense that it was an attempt on his part to reach out and develop a much more constructive relationship with us, and the interactions intensified thereafter...

I believe he's very well aware of the fact that the political conditions in Singapore are changing and the old ways of managing the media are no longer relevant, and he has to adapt and update his style of management.

Views of govt control 'don't accord with reality'
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 20 Oct 2012

BEFORE it sent the book OB Markers: My Straits Times Story to the presses, its publisher thought hard about how it might affect public perceptions of the media.

But Mr Patrick Daniel, chairman of the publisher, Straits Times Press, decided to go ahead - because if he did not, someone else would, he said.

"One of the things that I had to think through when I read the first draft that Cheong sent me earlier on was: Will what he says in the book... lead someone like you to think, 'Aha, I knew it all along, they are controlled by the Government'?" he recalled.

"Or will they look at it and say, 'Well, these are the facts and notwithstanding the media regime, we have done a good job as a newspaper'? So I wait and see how people react."

Mr Daniel said this at a panel discussion on the launch of Mr Cheong Yip Seng's tell-all book about government-media relations, after former Straits Times journalist Philip Lee asked whether the two men were troubled by the perceptions held by some that Singapore's media was docile and Government-controlled.

Replying, Mr Daniel said he was troubled because these views "did not accord with reality". He added that the tough "knuckleduster" approach to managing the media that Mr Cheong had described in his book was something from the past, and this had changed with the times.

Mr Cheong, too, disagreed with the perceptions.

"If we are, do you think we would have the run-ins we have had with the Government? Would we have had all the confrontations... if we were docile?"

The Straits Times, he pointed out, continues to attract a readership of 1.3 million at a time when other media outlets are facing declining readership.

"I believe we have a sensible public: well-informed, well-educated, careful about how they spend the money. I don't think they would spend their money on a newspaper that is the kind of wreck it is made out to be by some in the public. I think the paper commands a considerable amount of credibility."

Mr Cheong added that he hoped the book would provoke a discussion about the kind of media model Singaporeans want.

"If this results in further calibration on how the media ought to be regulated, I think we will be better for it."

An uneasy dance between power and the press
In his new book, former ST editor gives the scoop on tussles with the government in the early days and how things have changed
By Cheong Suk-Wai, The Straits Times, 21 Oct 2012

When Mr Cheong Yip Seng left teaching to start as a cub reporter at The Straits Times in November 1963, few Singaporeans had spare change to buy a newspaper.

By the time he retired in December 2006, the business of journalism had changed so much that readers were wondering why they had to pay for news at all.

Mr Cheong, 69, rose from rookie to ST news editor within eight years; then editor of the New Nation tabloid in 1976; editor of ST in 1979; and finally editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay Newspapers Division between 1987 and 2006.

So he has worked with Singapore's three prime ministers.

He has put his experience of that and more in a book titled OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, launched last Friday.

Those who know him find him shrewd, dogged and quiet. So why has he put the spotlight on himself with these memoirs?

In an interview with The Sunday Times at his home off Holland Road, Mr Cheong said that, among other things, he did so because he was a believer in "good mainstream media".

He could not see another paid newspaper rivalling ST any time soon, chiefly because the venture would be too expensive, what with declining revenues and rising inflation rates.

But surely the Internet has made it cheaper to grow news sites?

Mr Cheong, who once chaired Singapore's Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, said: "Yes, there is place in a modern society for citizen journalism... but that is not the equivalent of a dedicated team of journalists whose job it is to gather news round the clock, which is very expensive on a daily basis."

For that reason, he stressed, it was "manifestly unfair" to expect papers such as ST to offer for free information that they obtain at great expense.

If one went down that path, he argued, ST's quality would be "degraded", or become bare bones coverage replete with sound bites, not facts.

"If you have a sound bites newspaper, it would be like eating char kway teow without a kick," he said. "I hope one day a very courageous entrepreneur will appear and say, 'I want to spend part of my fortune producing a different kind of newspaper.' Competition is good and people do want a newspaper with a different slant; there's no reason why they should not want such a product."

Might that be because some readers perceive ST as being too pro-establishment?

He retorted: "If you're pro-establishment and there are sound reasons for you to be so, you should be prepared to stand by those values and demonstrate why, despite being so, you can still provide a valuable service."

His appreciation of these values was forged by ST's uneasy dance, as it were, with the People's Action Party (PAP) since it took power in 1959.

The PAP's pioneering leaders, especially Mr Lee Kuan Yew, thought the local press largely inept and slow to seize opportunities to show Singaporeans just how fragile their freedom from British rule was, even as newly independent Singapore was very poor and being riven apart by communists.

Investors blanched at such turmoil, so there were few jobs to be had. To woo them, Mr Lee and his lieutenants had to get Singaporeans to swallow "bitter medicine" policies that included making English the working language, which traumatised the many Chinese-educated students who suddenly had to switch language streams.

Many more Singaporeans were displaced when their kampungs disappeared after the Government bought up all the land it could to build the infrastructure needed to hook investors.

Mr Cheong recalled: "These were very tough policies and so the first generation of leaders spent an awful lot of time reaching out to the public to explain why such medicine was necessary, either directly or through the media."

But that need to communicate came with an "I know best" approach, which sometimes saw Mr Lee threatening to use knuckledusters on journalists who seemed to thwart his agenda.

Asked how he dealt with this, Mr Cheong said: "Well, it's never very comfortable to be confronted by somebody who comes at you with knuckledusters. But I also realised that while the newspaper had its needs, the political leadership at the time was also under enormous pressure to make something of this island...

"So while I may not be 100 per cent comfortable with the methods that they used, intellectually, I can understand why they had to take that very hard approach."

It wasn't just haranguing for the sake of haranguing, though. Recalling the years after he became editor-in- chief, Mr Cheong said: "The communication between Mr Lee's office and ours was quite intense. He was very anxious that he shared his viewpoint with the public and we were one conduit.

"He spent an awful lot of time interacting with us and sharing information because he believed that unless the media had a good understanding of an issue, policy would be harder to implement."

What did he and his colleagues share with Mr Lee?

"What could we communicate that would be of value?" Mr Cheong said. "Well, what could be of some value was our understanding of how the public reacted to policies."

Once Singapore began prospering in the late 1980s, and could market in earnest its burgeoning growth potential to top investors, Mr Cheong said, "the relationship between the rulers and the ruled changed", albeit "very gradually". The knuckleduster approach of the past was soon replaced by what he called "hard sell" by government leaders.

He recalled: "When Goh Chok Tong took the helm, he knew first of all that he was not Lee Kuan Yew. He had a different style and he was facing a different electorate who wanted more engagement and consultation."

That suited Mr Cheong and his colleagues because it meant "a greater appreciation of the constraints that we were operating under, imposed by the leadership and the changing readership".

Mr Cheong thought it also helped that he, Mr Goh and their teams belonged to the same generation and so, perhaps, had more in common than they had with the Old Guard.

With that and an increasingly diversified electorate demanding to have their say on decisions that affected them, Mr Cheong noted that, with each general election, the Government had freed up more space for political discussion, including allowing political films.

Otherwise, he said, the electorate would turn their attention from ST to "free for all" new media, whose environment might not foster the deeper dialogues that would help the Government calibrate and balance its policies to better address Singaporeans' increasingly complex and evolving needs.

The uneasy dance between power and media, he allowed, will remain uneasy, "but it does not mean that the steps will remain static". For example, he pointed out, cable TV channels here will soon be airing R21 films, against Singapore's prudish past.

Isn't he relieved to not be part of the dance any more?

"Relieved is not the word," he said. "You must be prepared to move from one phase of your life to another, as Shakespeare said about the seven ages of Man."



My first experience as editor, of how sensitive it could be, was in 1976 when I was editing New Nation. A plucky young lawyer, Chiam See Tong, was standing in Cairnhill as an independent candidate against a PAP heavyweight, Lim Kim San. He was not the typical opposition candidate, once derisively dismissed as a rabble-rouser, ill-qualified or fallen foul of the law. (Indeed, one was a bicycle thief.)

Chiam, however, came across as an earnest, well-meaning aspiring politician: he was a Teachers' Training College-qualified teacher before he switched to law. He cut a lonely figure on the stump, going round the middle-class constituency in his Volkswagen Beetle with a loud-hailer. New Nation was not the national newspaper, like The Straits Times. It could have a little more leeway, I figured. So I put him on the front page of our tabloid, with a picture of him in his Beetle.

I was wrong. I touched a raw nerve. The PAP were not taking any chances at all, I was to learn that evening. We were accused of rooting for the opposition because we had put the story on page 1. In the event, Chiam See Tong could not prevail against Lim Kim San, the man every Singaporean knew made public housing such a success story.

But the PAP believed the newsroom was generally sympathetic to the opposition, or more accurately, our journalists were seen to favour more checks on the Government. We were cast as adversaries, and it marred our relations with government.

I went through 10 general elections - one as editor of New Nation, two as editor of The Straits Times and five as editor-in-chief - and many by-elections. Seldom were they trouble-free, especially for The Straits Times. It was often found wanting, if not by the Government, then by the opposition parties and the English-educated intelligentsia.

Probably the most bruising attack on The Straits Times I remember was in 1979, shortly after the PAP called by-elections in seven constituencies. The by-elections were significant for two reasons. For the first time, self-renewal was at the top of the PAP agenda. The PM was embarking on a major campaign to renew its leadership ranks, a move that was highly controversial within the PAP because many Old Guard leaders were not ready for retirement. Second, early signs had appeared of the emergence of a credible, if minuscule, non-communist opposition.

The PAP won all seven seats comfortably, so we were taken by surprise when the PM analysed the election results at his annual Lunar New Year chap goh mei (15th day) celebration. About 1,000 members of the establishment and grassroots leaders were invited to the buffet dinner on the painstakingly manicured grounds of the Istana.

There, the PM spoke for more than an hour off-the-record, to update his audience on the challenges Singapore faced. He censured The Straits Times, accusing it of having treated the by-elections like "a cockfight". It had, in his view, not fully understood the real significance of self-renewal, and instead had overly focused on the challenge posed by the still feeble opposition.

Times House editors at the Istana party were stunned; they did not expect this public rebuke. After all, the PAP had won handsomely. A change of editorial leadership at Times House had taken place months earlier when T.S. Khoo retired to make way for Peter Lim. The new editorial chief was known to enjoy the confidence of some PAP leaders, and we had expected a more friction-free relationship with the Government. I was soon to realise that we were in a no-win position each time Singapore went to the polls.

Two years later, in 1981, came a turning point. The PAP's monopoly in Parliament was finally broken after 15 years when J.B. Jeyaretnam snapped a long losing streak to win the Anson by-election. The Straits Times tried to be objective, giving both sides fairly equal coverage, but the PAP saw it as favourable to Jeyaretnam.

Actually, the real reasons for the PAP defeat had little to do with media coverage. In his memoirs, the PM cited two: overconfidence of the PAP election team, and poor handling of the resettlement of port workers in the constituency.

Edmund Wee, who was in our team of reporters covering the by-election for us, knew early on that a PAP defeat was on the cards. "Cans were thrown from the HDB balconies at the rallies of the PAP candidate. I can still recall from my interviews, the utter despair felt by residents in those one-room flats."

Before the result was announced, Edmund was seen jumping up and down. He was later accused of jumping for joy that the PAP was defeated.

Was it true? Edmund recalled: "There was a front row of reporters. I was in the second or third row. Next to me was a reporter from the Monitor, my competitor, who is more than six feet tall. At five foot four and a half, I only reached up to his armpits. As the counting neared its end, I then jumped up and down, maybe two or three times to get a peek over the heads of those in front of me."

So did Edmund cheer the result? His take was this: "Just before the roar of the crowd, I had been seen jumping up and down a few times. Did the ISD men behind me get their timing wrong? Did I continue jumping for joy (for joy, according to them)? Who knows? I think I was objective enough to have merely observed the proceedings without reacting. But 28 years later, I am not so sure."



"Contrary to public perception, the Government did not use the mailed fist during my tenure as newsroom head. That era was over. It was more sophisticated in dealing with troublesome writers. (It) often responded privately and occasionally publicly and robustly to columns through the Forum pages. Only on a few occasions was I under pressure to remove the writer from the paper. I was fortunate I had in Lim Kim San an executive chairman who agreed that we had to protect our writers. If we did not, how could we continue to attract able young people to take up journalism? Besides, the writers could not be held solely responsible since editors cleared their work. I had ultimate responsibility because, unless I was out of town, I would usually have read the column before publication. It was not uncommon for editors to challenge some of the writers' views or to point out another way of looking at an issue. Editors could not therefore distance themselves from what was published...

The newsroom need not unduly worry that OB markers will handicap staff in practising meaningful journalism. There are strong safeguards against threats to editorial integrity. First, political conditions have changed. The public wants an even greater say in how they are governed. The power of the vote was evident in the 2011 general election, when a more assertive electorate took even the PAP by surprise. There was a sharp edge to the criticism openly aired, even from those who benefited most from PAP rule. Those who felt left behind, as Singapore raced to stay at the forefront of the First World, made their feelings known.

Second, policy trade-offs have to be made, more than ever before. For example, first-time buyers of HDB flats want the cost lowered, but existing homeowners want the value of their homes to go up. Those who protest against the growing population of foreigners also want better public infrastructure, higher service standards in restaurants and shops, and faster economic growth. Without foreign labour, those needs cannot be met. Younger workers want career advancement, which requires high growth, but the growing retiree population wants lower growth so costs can be contained and pressure on public services like transport eased. Competing demands have never been greater. Globalisation is best for Singapore, but it exacts a painful price - a yawning income gap. The Straits Times cannot be stopped from reflecting the whole range of diverse needs and opinions.

Third, the knuckleduster methods of the past in dealing with media deemed unfriendly to the Government are obsolete. Under present conditions, I cannot see the Internal Security Act being used or The Straits Times losing its publishing licence. Indeed, taking the tough line would be counter-productive. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act gives the Government veto powers over who gets to edit newspapers. But how many leadership changes can be forced on the newsroom? Whoever is put in charge cannot be expected to ignore the changed political conditions without inflicting a mortal blow to its editorial integrity, at great cost also to the PAP and Singapore.

Fourth, mainstream media cannot ignore the growing weight of new media or its shortcomings will be quickly exposed. Online content has become a real competitor for eyeballs. If The Straits Times ignores issues widely aired in cyberspace, it will lose readers. New media has moved the OB markers, further expanding the fairways.

No media organisation in Singapore has a burden greater than The Straits Times in negotiating the fairways to avoid going OB. In the English media market, no one else commands as extensive a reach... I cannot see another paid newspaper emerging in Singapore. Time and again, launching one to rival The Straits Times had proven ruinously expensive. To have a fighting chance, it must take an editorial position sufficiently differentiated from The Straits Times. In a state dominated by one party, the prospect for such an alternative to The Straits Times is virtually zero.

Hence, in terms of influence on public opinion in Singapore, The Straits Times is unmatched in the English media market for a long time to come. Even in a more politically pluralistic Singapore, the scope for two viable English-language paid newspapers is small.

For this reason, our journalists have an important role to uphold Singapore's best interests, because an economically vibrant country can best secure the paper's future.

The Straits Times occupies a large public space that can be used to help decision-making. In an environment where views are now actively encouraged by policy makers and where the noise in cyberspace is getting louder, the paper provides a source of accurate information about Singapore and the world, and space to accommodate all shades of opinion where calm analysis prevails over histrionics. Readers can also benefit from knowing clearly what it stands for so they can better assess what they read.

Media-govt ties: S'pore's Third Way
By Tom Plate, Published The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2012

IS THERE more than one rational and reasonable way to construct a news-media system that maximises overall benefit for citizens (if not just for the journalists)?

One provocative answer - courtesy of we-do-it-our-way Singapore - is "yes". It comes in the course of a rich retrospective on issues of the Singapore media in an implicitly provocative book by the former editor of The Straits Times and former editor-in-chief of its parent media corporation Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay Newspapers Division .

This is oh-so easily stereotyped Singapore - that place that has said "yes" to caning and "no" to chewing gum and almost always "yes sir" to leaders.

Well, while the Western media was overdosing on its Asian stereotypes, the former British colony quietly went about its business. Today it sports one of the world's highest per capita incomes, strong public health and educational systems, internationally recognised track records for astonishingly low levels of corruption and high levels of governance efficiency. How this happened with hardly anyone in the Western media taking notice - until recently - is a telltale story that should be included in every US journalism school curriculum (but of course won't).

After all, it's rather embarrassing.

The even-keeled voice of retired editor Cheong Yip Seng is nicely pitched to tell the Singapore media story convincingly. Reflecting as it does on the life of a successful career journalist at The Straits Times, the daily with roots dating back to the 19th century, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story recounts the sometimes rough-house relationship between Singapore's central government and the news media - but with extreme tact and understatement.

It turns out that as prime minister (1959-1990), the hard-wired Mr Lee Kuan Yew showed the same hands-on "tough love" (to put it diplomatically) towards his own media as towards international media intruders. It wasn't always pretty. The prudent journalist was careful not to stray outside the "out of bounds" (OB) markers on what the central government permitted as public discourse.

How Mr Cheong and his colleagues endured the constant threat of government crackdowns - sometimes under the uncertain threat - is a testament to their make-up. I know I could not have handled the pressure.

But then again, I am a cossetted US journalist, raised in the rosy notion of the press as a check on the power of government, happily protected from being unduly messed with by nothing less than the US Constitution. Mr Cheong never had those advantages, and yet his team produced journalism of sustained quality, despite the obvious limitation by US standards.

And so the book airs out a third way of configuring a responsible relationship between the news media and the government - and is thus a challenge to the independent "fourth estate" ideology of Western journalism.

The Singapore model of what university media professors call "developmental journalism" arose out of a combination of factors.

One was tiny Singapore's need to present a united polity in a neighbourhood that featured giant Indonesia lurking across the waters and antagonistic Malaysia hovering directly to the north. And so the news media needed to be a team player. Another was the need to globalise its economy rapidly in view of the paucity of natural resources and the relatively small size of the labour force and the local market. Within decades, it became the shining global city that it remains today. The team-player approach appears to have worked.

To be sure, the country had on its side a leader often acknowledged as a political genius. But Mr Lee was a very hard man - and he was especially hard on the news media, which needed to be pounded into partnership with the Government, even as it was permitted to retain a measure of credibility with its readers as an honest news source. And so being the top editor at the leading newspaper was a trying job indeed.

I cannot think of one top-drawer American newspaper editor who could have navigated those political waters as skilfully.

The end result is a possible Third Way for media and government that, in all intellectual honesty, should be studied with an open mind by others.

It suggests that media that are primitively hard on their governments may be missing the more important story; and that governments that regulate their media too severely may be losing an essential tool for communicating credible messages to the public.

Under proposal by Mr Cheong is the notion that getting the balance right will require a different calibration by every society - and that one media-model size definitely does not fit all.

The writer is a career journalist and university professor who has worked at Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other media institutions. He is the author of the Giants Of Asia book series, including Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew, as well as Confessions Of An American Media Man.

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