Reluctant Editor is the memoirs of a newspaper editor who played a seminal role in Singapore journalism. PN Balji writes he hesitated when he was offered the editor’s job at The New Paper because he was worried about his health, having had an angioplasty operation in America. But his wife told him to accept the job.
Eventually, he earned a place in the history of Singapore journalism as the editor who helped launch not one but two tabloid newspapers in the city-state. Starting as the deputy editor of The New Paper when it hit the news stands in 1988, he became its editor within two years and went on to launch Today in 2000.
The two dailies redefined journalism in Singapore, The New Paper as a colourful tabloid that told the news like a story and Today as a tabloid that was as serious as a broadsheet.
As the editor of two such contrasting newspapers – both departures from Singapore’s main newspaper, the Straits Times, a respected newspaper of record – Balji played a seminal role in Singapore journalism.
His memoir Reluctant Editor, however, is refreshingly free of self-importance. Like a seasoned journalist, he tells a good story, letting the facts speak for themselves. He was a natural-born editor for a mass-circulation daily, given his background. His father was a storekeeper at the British naval base in Singapore and also a trade unionist, poet and playwright. Balji admits his father’s influence on him. He inherited both the flair for words and the socio-political awareness.
His memoirs take us back to a wilder, woollier Singapore where newspapers actually competed with one another and even paid for tip-offs. Balji freely admits that working as a crime reporter for the now defunct New Nation in the 1970s, he along with a colleague bribed the fire brigade’s telephone operators for tip-offs because a rival newspaper did the same. For this, he was fined. The experience was so traumatic that he gave up reporting and became a sub-editor. That’s how he rose to be an editor.
The editor’s is a hot seat in Singapore, from what Balji writes. He recounts run-ins with the government. He recalls the case of the former reporter Suresh Nair, who reported on a Singapore air force helicopter crash in The New Paper in greater detail than the defence ministry divulged, prompting the government to crack down on the reporter’s sources. Anguished by the punishment meted out to his sources and his own ordeal – he was questioned by the investigators – Nair gave up reporting and became a sub-editor like Balji.
Singapore ranks 158th out of 180 countries on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, but maybe there are journalists who thrive in such challenging conditions – like Balji. About The New Paper, he writes: “The TNP life was my most rewarding experience not just because it became the only afternoon daily to hit a daily sales figure of more than 100,000 copies a day, but also because of the talented team… I worked with.” “He made the newspaper commercially successful and intellectually credible,” says international lawyer and diplomat Prof Tommy Koh about Balji’s contribution to The New Paper in the foreword to Reluctant Editor.
It’s mind-boggling how in Singapore of all places false allegations were made against a former leader. But The New Paper reported former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye was arrested in connection with a hit-and-run accident in which a 17-year-old student was killed. It turned out the man arrested was a namesake of the former deputy premier, not he. He sued and obtained damages. The newspaper made the shocking blunder in January 1996 when Balji was on leave, when his deputy was the acting editor.
Balji went on to launch the free newspaper Today four years later, at the dawn of the new millennium. He reminisces about the competition it faced from Singapore Press Holdings, the publisher of The New Paper and the Straits Times. All that’s history now. Today has ceased to be a printed newspaper, appearing online only. The New Paper has shrunk. The Straits Times soldiers on but isn’t as flush with advertisements as it used to be. Even an editor as successful as Balji may have been hard put to sell more copies of a newspaper now. As he says: ”Journalism has evolved into a very different creature, facing different challenges.” His memoirs, nevertheless, are a compelling inside story about Singapore media. A bestseller in Singapore, Reluctant Editor shows Balji’s enduring popularity as a writer.