Cheong Yip Seng: Inside The Straits Times

Cheong Yip Seng
Cheong Yip Seng

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

Those lines from Julius Caesar certainly apply to Cheung Yip Seng, who loves Shakespeare. His musician father brought the family over on a ship from Penang to Singapore, where in 1963 Cheung, then 20 years old, got a job with The Straits Times.

Twenty-three years later, in December 1986, on a flight back to Singapore from Burma, the then deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong asked him to become editor-in-chief of the English and Malay Newspapers Division of Singapore Press Holdings, The Straits Times’ owner and one of the most profitable media groups in Asia.

He might not have got the job, though, unless recommended by the man who later became  president of Singapore.

His name was on the list … but, says Cheung:

Years later, I learned that the list did not impress the PM (Lee Kuan Yew) who thought a search for an expat editor should be made. SR Nathan disagreed, and persuaded him that an expat was a bad idea: his Western news values would severely handicap him in practising the Singapore brand of journalism. The chairman stuck his neck out for me.

SR Nathan served as chairman of SPH before becoming president, as did Tony Tan, the current President.

The close relations between the media and the government are common knowledge in Singapore. Nathan, who was a civil servant before joining SPH, found Cheong’s successor as well. In OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, Cheong writes:

When SR Nathan joined us in 1982, he helped us headhunt. He found us Patrick Daniel, then a young administrative officer. I first met Patrick in 1985 when Singapore fell into a recession. He was then an aide to Lee Hsien Loong, who was then tasked to head an economic committee to study how to get us out of the downturn and reshape the economy for the future. Patrick was secretary of the committee…

Now Lee Hsien Loong is Prime Minister and Patrick Daniel, editor-in-chief of the English and Malay Newspapers Division of Singapore Press Holdings.

“Patrick Daniel turned out to be another natural journalist,” says Cheung, adding he proved so good the company wanted to hire more civil servants.

But then their salaries were raised beyond what SPH could afford to pay.

Occasionally, they were not to be had at any price – like George Yeo. Cheong recalls:

I once thought George Yeo would be eminently suited to run The Straits Times group. I first met him when he was director of joint operations at the Ministry of Defence… He was not your typical army officer, but a real scholar… Later, at a lunch DPM Goh hosted back at his Istana office, I broached the idea. I felt that one day he could run The Straits Times group with distinction. The DPM laughingly dismissed the notion. “No… George Yeo will become a minister one day.”

It was George Yeo who first used the term, “OB markers”, in politics, says Cheong:

He was using golfing language to vividly make the point that Singapore needed OB markers to demarcate areas of public life that should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media.

The “OB markers” referred to the restrictions put in place by Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who maintained the press had no right to criticize a popularly elected government.

The problem was the OB markers were not set in stone. Sometimes the newspapers gave offence without meaning to. For example, Lee Kuan Yew as infuriated by a picture of a large happy family published in New Nation when the government was urging couples to have not more than two children.

“The newsroom trod on eggshells, when writing about the opposition,” says Cheong.

Elsewhere, he writes:

The opposition parties did not help themselves: their media strategy was poor. They were not at all enamoured with our coverage, but keeping their distance did them no favours. When the PAP started, The Straits Times was unsympathetic to its cause, but it did not ignore the paper. My news editor, Sit Yin Fong, once told me how persistent Lee Kuan Yew, then in the opposition, was in trying to get a hearing from him.

Yes, there was a time when Lee Kuan Yew had to cultivate the press. He paid attention to the press because he understood its value. He was furious when The Straits Times failed to appear one morning because of an industrial dispute — and legislation was passed classifying The Straits Times as an essential service where wildcat strikes were banned.

Lee Kuan Yew wanted what was best for Singapore and expected the press to play a supportive role. He set high standards, demanding accuracy, analysis and quality journalism. Unless the press was trusted by the people, it could not play an effective role in informing and educating the people.

That is what he was – an educator. “He was a marvellous storyteller,” says Cheong, recalling lunches with Lee who shared his insights and experiences.

Lee, who initially wanted an expat editor for The Straits Times, later decided to “build a more productive relationship with us”, adds Cheong.  When Lee wrote his memoirs, he sent a letter to Cheong asking for his comments and advice on “how to improve the presentation and make it interesting for the average reader”. After the first volume, The Singapore Story, was published by Simon and Schuster, Cheong persuaded Rupert Murdoch to publish the second volume, From Third World to First.  When Cheong retired from SPH, he  was presented with a DVD in which “Two newsmakers, friends through most of my career, made an appearance: Lee Kuan Yew and SR Nathan.”

The relationship had its ups and downs. Cheong remembers the 1970s “knuckledusters era” when the press had a hard time with the government.

He recalls the case of Peter Ong, who saw an advertisement in The Straits Times inviting Malaysians to enlist with the Singapore Armed Forces in 1973. But when the young  journalist reported it in New Nation, he was pulled up by the authorities and made to serve in the army even though he had already done national service. Lee Kuan Yew wanted another journalist, Mary Lee, sacked for writing a column critical of the education policy in Sunday Nation. Cheong, who was then editing the paper, made her a sub-editor instead.

Cheong writes:

Besides reporters, sub-editors would sometimes be viewed with suspicion. The sub checks for accuracy, closes gaps in the story filed by the reporter, clears ambiguity, tightens the language and writes the headlines and photograph captions. Our headlines attract the most attention… Hence, I would be pressed for the personal background of a subeditor whose headline was seen as overly negative. Was the sub a foreigner, unsympathetic to the Singapore style of government? Did he or she have a personal agenda? However, no sub has had any action taken against him or her…

Another group of journalists whose work attracted attention were the columnists, in particular those who wrote on politics, governance and public policies…

Cheong adds:

Contrary to popular 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. They 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…

Interestingly, readers of The Straits Times got more latitude from the government than the staff writers… Lee Kuan Yew had always taken readers’ letters seriously… Some permanent secretaries told us they read the Forum page first thing in the morning to avoid being embarrassed by a call from their ministers who might read it before they did…

The Straits Times, with a circulation of nearly 390,000 as of August 2011 and a million-plus readership, continues to be taken seriously by the government. Cheong recalls the government was unhappy when The Sunday Times was revamped because the ministers thought the newspaper was going downmarket.

I have read the memoirs of journalists such as Arthur Christiansen, the Daily Express editor mentioned by Cheong; Harold Evans, who edited The Times and the Sunday Times; Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote about Mother Teresa; and Christopher  Hitchens.

Cheong Yip Seng tells as good a story. Anyone interested in Singapore will be drawn into this book. The writing flows and the cast of characters is huge.

Of course, it is impossible to cover everything in a single book. There is not much about significant political developments such as Barisan Socialis or Operation Cold Store in the early years of Singapore’s independence. Cheong writes about newspapers and journalists, touching on political events only as they affected the industry.

Any book is coloured by the author’s experiences, and Cheong had risen from living in a three-room Singapore Improvement Trust flat in his youth to the highest position in the newspaper industry and won the  confidence of prime ministers. “I have had a memorable ride for 43 years,” he writes. You are disarmed by his graciousness. He recalls so many people he has worked with in his long career from the 1960s to the 21st century.

He took interest in the progress of young journalists:

I derived much pleasure watching the rookies rise through the ranks. I would go regularly into the newsroom’s electronic history directory to see how their raw copy was edited. As they progressed, there was less and less editing work.

Early on, he says:

My newsroom experience taught me that performance is not determined by what you studied…what produced excellent work was not subject knowledge… It was work attitude and EQ, the ability to get along with people.

His book shows him in possession of both these qualities. It rings with praise for a parade of journalists and includes an entire chapter on “The Joys of Journalism”.  These are the memoirs of a successful  journalist who can engage his readers. OB Markers is a fascinating account of Singapore newspapers.

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