OB Markers: My Straits Times Story by Cheong Yip Seng, former Editor-in-Chief of the Singapore Press Holdings.
This is an extraordinary book. Right
from the very first chapter, to the last, it is full of detailed
revelations about the mainstream media in Singapore. It is an
incredible resource for those trying to understand the control of the
media and Singapore’s brand of self-censorship. Indirectly, this
book is invaluable in helping to explain the dominance of one
political party through its "symbiotic” relationship to all the
mainstream print media in our country.
The first chapter begins with an
account of how Cheong was appointed to his job as editor-in-chief
in 1986. This was not a private dinner with a publisher or a board meeting or even the result of a secret ballot at a conference of
Instead, Cheong describes how he was summoned by
Chandra Das on a plane to Burma with the words "The boss wants
to see you". He was given a seat in the first class cabin next
to the then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Goh wanted him to
take over the editorial leadership of the Straits Times (ST) from Peter
Lim who had been found wanting.
Apparently Peter Lim's "sin” was
that he (and the ST) had during the regional uproar over the (Israeli president) Chaim
Herzog visit "Failed to recognise the educational role of the
Straits Times" which infuriated then PM Lee Kuan Yew who
believed that the ST coverage "did not help Singaporeans fully
understand the facts of regional life and what it took to be an
independent sovereign nation".
Apparently Lim had
relied too much on the Malaysian English language media in its
coverage of the Malaysian reactions without adequately carrying some
of the more rabid reactions from the vernacular media from across the
causeway. This was the final straw which led to Peter Lim's firing as
the Istana had apparently "reached the point of no return with
the Straits Times".
In the months before that Cheong reveals
that the government was planning on a "GTO (government team of
officials) moving into Times House" similar to what was done
with the bus company. The response by the ST leadership is
instructive. Instead of protesting against this attempt at
interference in professional journalism, apparently, Peter Lim and
CEO Holloway met the PM at the Istana repeatedly to negotiate against a GTO. The solution they negotiated
was instead a "monitor at Times House, someone who could watch
to see if indeed the newsroom was beyond control". This person
was identified by Cheong as (former president) S R Nathan.
The threat of a GTO
together with the presence of a "monitor” made sure that the SPH
newspapers toed the party line. This is something that many of us in
civil society in Singapore have suspected for a long time but it is
nice to see it confirmed here from the best source possible.
There is more evidence of
intimidation documented in this book mainly from Lee Kuan Yew who
actually endorsed the book prominently. For example, after an early
event at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Cheong was threatened by Lee with the words, "If you print this, I will break your
neck". Cheong's response to what appears on the surface to be
a brutal threat is interesting was: "I was taken aback by his
thunderbolt...It was my first taste of Lee Kuan Yew's ways with the
media...Thankfully not every encounter would be as bruising as
(that)...but there were many occasions when the knuckleduster
approach was unmistakeable."
Such blatant intimidation is presumably
rare in Singapore. The title of the book, however, describes the life
of a Singaporean journalist constantly trying to negotiate the OB or
Out of Bounds markers. Cheong explains the origin of the term "OB
markers”, ascribing it to former minister George Yeo, who described them as
"areas of public life that should remain out of bounds to social
activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high
Outside race and religion, the most important OB marker
was then PM Lee Kuan Yew's argument that the press could not be a
"fourth estate" or center of power because it was not
This is not a valid argument to me as it could be argued
that the press are far more accountable than politicians as they have
to seek the approval of the newspaper purchasing public every day
rather than every four to five years in elections.
Instead, Lee's view of the
press was that of a tool for dissemination and promotion of
government policies. One illuminating illustration was a "furious"
call from Lee's office that was received by the (now defunct) New
Nation Editor David Kraal. The editors were "flummoxed"
to discover that the then PM was provoked by a photograph of a large
family to illustrate a story of a happy Singapore family. Apparently,
this was perceived by the PM as "subtle but effective criticism"
of the "Stop at Two campaign".
There are other OB markers which
Cheong found "bewildering". These included Stanley Gibbons,
the stamp dealer; carpet auctions; monosodium glutamate or MSG; feng shui;
unflattering pictures of politicians and scoops.
I think many
Singaporeans too would find it difficult to understand why these
"should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media.
Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price". These are,
however, hallmarks of an authoritarian regime which can install
boundaries at whim without having them questioned.
Another OB marker was appearing overly
critical of local TV programs. George Yeo apparently pointed
out that "If the Straits Times created the impression that our TV
programs were not worth watching, Singapore would lose an important
channel of communications.” As a result, even the TV critics were
The issue of scoops is a recurrent
theme too. Cheong reports that "Lee Kuan Yew was determined
to purge the newsroom of the culture of scoops". He did not want
a situation like the Watergate affair where a dishonest president was
exposed by investigative journalists who became cult heroes. Cheong
writes "The PM took the position that Singapore was not America:
he had no skeletons in the closet and challenged the press to find
one because he wanted to be the first to know..."
course, the press could not use investigative journalism to find out
- they had to depend on the official version of events. This kind of
Alice in Wonderland argument does not seem to trouble Cheong or
perhaps by re-stating the argument in this context, he is exposing
Cheong actually admits how much of a
struggle this was for him as a journalist. He quotes Number 5 Chinese Leader Li Changchun as urging the mainland Chinese
journalists to go for scoops and explains his predecessor Peter Lim's
Faustian bargain for Singapore journalists thus: "it was
better to produce the best story than the first story...Finding
scoops in Singapore with many OB markers carried a real risk".
Indeed, one gets a sense of how difficult life is for journalists who
might inadvertently break a story that covered the sensitive subject
of MSG or bad local TV programs or some other OB
marker and end up being hauled up by the government.
Cheong makes it clear that while
he had hoped that the "knuckleduster era" belonged to the 1970s,
it could reappear any time. For example, he describes how while "recovering”
from the 2006 GE, he received a phone call in a hotel in Phuket, from Lee Kuan Yew who was "livid” about a "powerfully argued
column by Chua Mui Hoong” in which the deputy political editor had
questioned the policy of placing opposition wards at the back of the
queue for upgrading works. According to Cheong, Lee was "his old
1970s self. If the Straits Times wanted a fight, he was prepared to
do it the old way, with knuckledusters on”. This is depressing but
not surprising to any reader of the ST today.
The extent of micro-management of the
local press Cheong reports is amazing. Apparently, Goh Chok Tong
had made a suggestion during the launch of The New Paper: "Why not
consider a Page 3 girl”. Cheong quickly clarifies that Goh was
not suggesting topless women that had been made famous by Rupert
Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun but rather girls that (as Cheong
quotes Goh) "can be scantily dressed”. The character and
direction - and not just the OB markers - of the local press are thus
apparently suggested by Singapore’s political leadership.
Cheong also provides details about the ST personnel's relationship with the
PAP. He writes that "senior PAP leaders had been impressed with (Warren Fernandez's) work for us. His columns in particular have been
generally supportive of PAP policies." He was about to be
selected as a PAP candidate for the 2006 elections.
emailed the Prime Minister asking to keep Warren at the ST "unless
he was earmarked for higher office. But the PM's response was that he
needed Eurasian representation in parliament". Apparently
Cheong's email had been circulated to the PAP selection panel before
the final interview and Lee Kuan Yew agreed to keep Fernandez out
of the PAP slate. Of course, now Fernandez is the Editor of ST.
Reporting on the "opposition"
politicians was even more of a "minefield". Cheong recalls
the 1984 elections when "Peter Lim, then editor in chief, was
under pressure from James Fu, the PM's press secretary, conveying the
PM's request to publish Chiam (See Tong)'s O-Level results....Peter
Lim refused: he was convinced it would backfire against the PAP...The
result proved him right".
What intrigues me about the incident
was not just that the Prime Minister would intervene to try to
persuade the national newspaper to publish such data, but rather that
the editor-in-chief refused not because of journalistic integrity but
rather because he thought it would "backfire against the PAP".
This is typical of what Cheong describes as the "symbiotic
relationship" between the ST and the PAP which is in fact enshrined in the
editorial policy that Cheong crafted in response to then PM Goh’s
unhappiness with the local mainstream media. The three pillars of
that policy are (1) "Accuracy and objectivity” of coverage (2) The
nation building task of advancing and informing the public as
Singapore develops and (3) The symbiotic relationship with the
government. Some journalists were unhappy about this
relationship but it stayed in the ST editorial policy at Cheong’s
insistence. This documentation again, is what makes this book
valuable to all who read the local press.
There are many revelations in Cheong's book. We learn
that the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts kept a dossier on local press articles which they find
offensive. These include not giving enough prominence to minister’s
speeches. We also learn that when editors were "called up for
meetings” with then PM Lee Kuan Yew, they had to send detailed CVs
including their O-Level results and their wives educational
Other specific examples of censorship included
restrictions on reporting conditions in national service camps in the
early days and telling the stories of the people who actually lost
out through the Housing and Development Board (HDB) construction and resettlement process. The latter
is poignant as Cheong describes the contrast between the 30,000
square feet (including a pond and a farm) that a friend living in
Kampong Henderson had to give up in exchange for less than $3,000
compensation and a much smaller HDB flat. The ST was not allowed to
report on such negative aspects of our "urban renewal” process or
the HDB "success story”. The threat of the disapproval of the
Times House "monitor” which could cost them their jobs through a
GTO ensured compliance.
Interestingly, the "foreign
investors” whom we religiously try to attract to Singapore are not
as keen on press controls as we have been given to believe. According
to Cheong, the American Business Council supported by the US State
Department argued that investors would be deterred without the free flow of
information. Cheong reports how the
Singapore government stood their ground but paid the price, in his
words: "liberal democracies and some members of the Singapore
intelligensia saw it as too intolerant for its own good”.
Cheong is dismissive of the online
alternative media but he devotes a paragraph to responding to Seelan
Palay’s film "One Nation Under Lee" specifically by
explaining that the ISD agents hired by the ST were not sent by the
government, they were in fact, according to Cheong, willingly brought
in by himself.
Later on, Cheong describes Lee Kuan Yew’s response
to the online question "Who paid for the flying hospital for his
wife” as marking the legitimization of online media. Cheong
acknowledges that the days of traditional media are numbered
worldwide, even in Singapore. He quotes the PM Lee Hsien Loong as
admitting that he cannot persuade his own daughter to read the news
pages of the ST.
The book is not all about the travails
of a court announcer trying to keep the king happy. For me, the most
promising section was the one describing the ST's finest
hour – exposing the (National Kidney Foundation) NKF scandal. Here is where you get a sense of
what might have been should the ST have decided to serve the
people of Singapore by performing the task of investigative
journalists rather than as disseminators of official information.
Cheong was aware of "strong pro-NKF sentiments in powerful
quarters” including two ministers (Lim Hng Kiang and Khaw Boon Wan)
as the NKF had taken a tremendous load off the public healthcare
sector by keeping alive and healthy 1,800 Singaporeans through its
excellent dialysis centers.
He was initially prepared to pay $20,000 as compensation,
publish a statement of clarification about the article by Susan Long
which had the infamous gold taps as part of a "generally laudatory
article” and settle the matter out of court. Cheong does not reveal who or
what made him change his mind and go against Mrs Goh Chok Tong’s efforts to
T T Durai, then NKF CEO who was at the centre of the controversy, was incensed and accused the media of
trying to be the fourth estate which Cheong had already established
was a role that the Singapore mainstream media had given up –
except in this case!
Here the ST team excelled themselves – they
tracked down the contractor who prepared the gold taps and other
witnesses who were prepared to sign affidavits. In other words, good
old fashioned investigative journalism. Like the good journalists
that many in the ST are (before they censor themselves), they want
their readers to have all the facts, including those below the
surface so the readers could make intelligent decisions for
While the stories in the book are
exciting to any media watcher (and there are many more), there are many errors such as the misspelling of my uncle
David Tambyah's name and SARS was described incorrectly as occurring in
2002 in one instance (although the proof readers picked out the
correct dates for the three subsequent mentions of the outbreak).
Cheong himself acknowledges the problem with the quality of English
in the newspaper and says that the ST paid the price for the
"neglect” of the teaching of grammar in schools. It got
so bad that he had to "scour” the world for good copy editors
whom he eventually found in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India.
For those of us who lament that our education system seems to have
switched from teaching life and career skills to teaching what is
required to top international standardized tests, that is a statement
worth paying attention to.
The question on many Singaporean’s
minds is: Why did he write this book? Cheong does explicitly reveal this. Near the end of the book,
however, he gives a telling account of how journalists found official
spokespersons unhelpful as their priority was "reflecting better on
the ministers” rather than allowing journalists to do investigative
or background work. He describes frustrated journalists recounting
their bad experiences in explicit detail – perhaps that is what he
is trying to do himself as some kind of catharsis.
he talks about a time when the ST was indeed the "fourth estate”
when it did occasionally demonstrate its independence – although he
has to reach as far back as 1956 when the ST condemned the takeover
of the Suez Canal by British, French and Israelis. British
expats in Singapore were incensed and the managing director of the
ST, a member of the British establishment was "spat on in the
(then British only) Tanglin Club.”
When I asked a prominent civil
society figure about the reasons for this book, he pointed out that
when authoritarian regimes in Latin America or Eastern Europe were
crumbling, "everyone claimed to be a reformer”.
I am an optimist.
I think that Cheong has seen the signs from the recent general, presidential and by-elections and he knows that the people of Singapore are waking up.
Establishment voices are raising questions about some fundamental
The first step, as anyone with a serious problem knows, is
acknowledging that you have a serious problem. Perhaps this is
Cheong’s first step. Hopefully for the mainstream media,
acknowledging the problem of control and domination will be the first
step to the recovery of an independent media which can evolve into a
free press, a necessity for democracy for the people of Singapore.
The book is a worthy read.
Assoc Prof Paul Tambyah is a member of SDP's Healthcare Advisory Panel.
Interesting reading of the book here. I haven't read the book but it's fascinating to note how ST Press gives a very different (and certainly more positive) spin on the book. From its website:
"Cheong Yip Seng's memoir is much more than just a "deep-background -off- the-record" of Lee Kuan Yew's years as Singapore's no. 1 newsmaker. It is a chronological and sensitive explationation of how the Republic's newspaper of record was shaped by Mr Lee - and, more important, why he took it upon himself to do so. This memoir could not come at a more appropriate time, when Singapore's third generation leaders find themselves in headwinds of public opinion the first Prime Minister dealt with with a firm hand. Whether times have changed and Singapore's current leadership can no longer deal with The Straits Times the way Mr Lee dealt with Cheong Yip Seng and his predecessors is a question this book throws up. The answer is a subject worthy of debate among the myriad self-appointed and untrained citizen journalists, who really should read this book for their own much- needed enlightenment."
"It is also for anyone interested in the future of Singapore, for its accounts of what constituted "out of bounds" up until 2006 show how such areas could possibly be navigated now. As Cheong's memoir of The Straits Times for more than four decades reveals, the rationale for the Singapore media model may be hard to accept for many liberals. But this model has been sufficiently successful to keep Singapore's newspaper of record one of the most successful in the world. "
The Singapore Democratic Party was constituted in 1980. Since then the Party has evolved and, today, stands proudly as the vanguard for the democratic struggle in our nation. We are acutely aware that pocket-book issues are what drive political opinion in Singapore. A look at some of the articles in this website and especially those in The New Democrat, our party newspaper, shows that we have been emphasizing much on the bread-and-butter issues concerning the common folk.
Are you tired of competing with foreign workers for jobs that pay pittance? Are you concerned about the escalating prices of HDB flats? Are you angry about the loss of billions of dollars of our reserves? The Singapore Democrats are determined to bring to the Singaporean electorate an alternative to the PAP's economic system which has come under increasing scrutiny as it struggles to convince the public that it can deliver the necessary results.
History shows that women have been unequally represented in the political arena in Singapore. From 1970 to 1984, there were no women parliamentarians. This trend is even more pronounced in the opposition. The Women Democrats (WD), the women's wing of the SDP, is looking to change that.
As a youth wing of the Singapore Democratic Party, we believe in the ideals and aims of our mother party. That means promoting human rights and democracy in authoritarian Singapore. Set up in 1999, we believe that Young Democrats (YD) can only do this with a base of dedicated and passionate youths who are committed to the ideals and willing to work to make it happen.
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