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Ex-Straits Times editor reveals gov’t meddling in tell-all book

Cheong Yip Seng has written a book on the "outbound markers" in Singapore. (Yahoo! photo of book cover)Cheong Yip Seng has written a book on the "outbound markers" in Singapore. (Yahoo! photo of book cover)

COMMENT

Singapore's media history is splattered with the red ink of editors who prefer to take their and their colleagues' bruising stories to the grave.

Some do it for fear of reprisal, some for not wanting to break the confidence of their colleagues and sources and some for wanting to just forget the past.

But Cheong Yip Seng, the former editor-in-chief of the The Straits Times (ST), has bucked this trend with his memoir, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story.  ("Out of bounds" markers often refer to the line between which issues are 'sensitive' and which are not.)

It is a compelling story that is part personal, part political and part a survival guide to Singapore journalism.

Cheong's tales are not new; they have been whispered about at the watercooler and written with great relish in a book called Media Enthralled by political refugee Francis Seow.

But this is the first time a Singapore editor has gone to print with an insider's take on how the republic's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew systematically controlled the press with draconian laws and protected it with anti-competition barriers.

Cheong is a battle-hardened journalist, having risen up the ranks in The Straits Times with a staying power that lasted 43 years, 19 of them as the editor-in-chief. His reporting instincts are evident in the book when he describes incidents with dramatic flourish, especially his first taste of Lee's distaste for media practitioners.

"I will break your neck," Cheong describes Lee as telling him when the rookie reporter tried to make a case for not imposing an embargo on a speech the Prime Minister had made.

There are lots of delicious details -- a phrase Cheong made famous in the newsroom -- like this in the book.

One of the bravest episodes was when Peter Lim, Cheong's predecessor, resisted Lee's pressure to print the full O level results of Opposition politician Chiam See Tong during the 1984 election.  Lee wanted to show to voters that Chiam did not have the academic credentials to be a capable MP.

Lim resisted because he felt it would backfire on the ruling party and the newspaper.

The author is a smart survivor, too. He had a ring-side view of how his boss, Peter Lim, tried to run the newsroom with some form of independence and paid the price for it by having to resign.

"The board told me my deputy was ready to take over'' -- that was the loaded answer Lim gave when historian Mary Turnbull asked him about his 1987 departure in another book on The Straits Times.

Cheong was careful to make sure that he was not going to face that kind of fate.

He knew when to give in, when to remain stoic and when to argue — gently, that is -- when the famous phone calls came.

In the process, he built up trust with the political leadership, a rare quotient to develop with a government that looked at reporters with grave suspicion. "What is your agenda" is an often-repeated question thrown at journalists to put them on the defensive.

The Singapore government's intervention in media is legendary. Cheong describes many episodes -- from appointments of editors to shaping coverage of political and foreign events and even to minor stories like stamp-collecting, carpet-buying and MSG - with the pen of a master story teller.

A book of this nature is never complete and never meets one's full expectations because the omissions are many and the shades of truth are varied.

For instance, the over-night contraction in ST's coverage (after a phone call, that is)  of the 1988 election in which former Solicitor General Francis Seow was an Opposition candidate is never mentioned, the private conversation between Cheong and the second prime minister Goh Chok Tong that the government wanted him to take over as editor-in-chief is not explained and how the paper handled the 1987 Internal Security Act arrests for an alleged "Marxist conspiracy" which rankle the elite till today is erased out.

Despite such inadequacies, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story is a laudable effort to put on record the media-government tensions and the astonishing meddling that editors like Cheong had to deal with regularly.

It is a half-told story. We wait for the other bits from those who, hopefully, will be spurred to fill the gaps left by Cheong.

P. N. Balji, a Singapore journalist for more than 35 years, is now a media consultant
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