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Books Media Singapore

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.

Categories
Books Media Singapore

Joseph Conrad and Singapore newspapers

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Straits Times mentioned in Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly. It’s at the beginning of Chapter 4:

That year, towards the breaking up of the south-west monsoon, disquieting rumours reached Sambir. Captain Ford, coming up to Almayer’s house for an evening’s chat, brought late numbers of the Straits Times giving the news of Acheen war and of the unsuccessful Dutch expedition.

It’s interesting because Conrad was writing in the late 19th century about a Dutch trader living deep in the jungles of Borneo.

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Books India Singapore

Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew

Indira_Gandhi1 lee_kuan_yew1

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is compared to Indira Gandhi by the Indian journalist, Sunanda Datta-Ray, who once worked for The Straits Times.

In his book, Looking East to Look West, exploring India-Singapore relations, based on his interviews with MM Lee, he writes:

Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future. Both dominated the scene around them. So much so that though lacking the alliterative resonance of the loyalist chant during the Emergency, 'Indira is India, India is Indira', it might be more accurate to recite 'Kuan Yew is Singapore, Singapore is Kuan Yew'. He is probably the world's only democratically elected leader who can boast, as France's Louis XIV is believed to have done, 'L'etat c'est moi' (I am the state). That, too, has an Indian parallel. It was only half in jest that British newspapers bestowed on Indira Gandhi the 'Empress of India' title invented for Queen Victoria.

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Books Media

Free because we blog, tweet, in an attention economy

Free_chris_anderson

Singapore's Straits Times and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post are the only English language newspapers I know that do not allow their stories to be read online for free.

Even the Financial Times allows some of its stories to be read for free.

Not the Straits Times. All you can read for free on its website are wire stories, letters to the editor, readers' comments — and, yes, its blogs. Just don't expect to see the newspaper's regular columnists there. You can read Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman for free, but you have to pay to read Andy Ho and Sumiko Tan.

It just goes to show the amazing strength of the Straits Times that, while virtually everyone else is giving away original content for free, it can still charge for what it has to offer.

Digital cheap

Newspapers can allow free online access because the digital medium is so cheap, says Chris Anderson in his book, Free. It's fascinating reading. The Wired magazine editor says why readers must pay to read his magazine but enjoy free access to the website:

"In print, I operate by the rules of scarcity, since each page is expensive and I have a limited number of them… Not only are our pages expensive, they are also unchangeable. Once the presses run, our mistakes and errors of judgment are preserved for posterity (or at least until they are recycled)…

"Online, however, pages are infinite and indefinitely changeable. It's an abundance economy and invites a totally different management approach. On our Web site we have dozens of bloggers, many of them amateurs, who write what they want, without editing…

"Standards such as accuracy and fairness apply across the board, but in print we have to get everything right before publication, at great expense, while online we can correct as we go."

The website costs only a fraction of the magazine business:

"We pay dollars to print, bind and mail a magazine to you… but just microcents to show it to you on our Web site. That's why we can treat it as free, because on a user-by-user basis, it is, in fact, too cheap to meter.

"Overall, our server and bandwidth bill amounts to several thousand dollars a month. But that's to reach millions of readers."

Newspaper publishers are beginning to ask what's the point of reaching millions of readers when advertisers are willing to pay for only a certain target audience.

Attention economy

But money alone no longer makes the world go round, as even businesses acknowledge. Why else do they make such a fuss about brand recognition?

Welcome to the attention economy. Another reason to read Free, especially if you are a blogger or interested in the media.

Anderson explains the new economy in terms any blogger or user of Facebook, Twitter or MySpace will understand:

Categories
Books Singapore

Men In White: More

Officials fallen out of favour were said to be airbrushed out of pictures in the Soviet era. Something similar happens in Men In White, the history of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party.

Devan Nair vanishes from the pages of this book after he gives up his seat in parliament to become president in 1981. His subsequent fallout with the then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and resignation as president remain unexplored.

The book tells how Ong Teng Cheong became Singapore's first elected president in 1993, but there is hardly anything about his subsequent differences with the government.

One may argue those differences involved matters of state while this is the history of a political party. But both were PAP men and Singapore has been so long under PAP rule – for more than 50 years – that their histories are inextricably interlinked. The book touches on almost every government policy from housing to education. So there should have been more on them.

This is a history, not a novel. You cannot drop a character halfway through. Especially key figures like these.

Devan Nair was a PAP founder member. We are told so much about him in the early chapters – his leftist leanings, his differences with Lee Kuan Yew, his subsequent disillusionment with communism; we are even told about his wife's "fabled cooking" — and then he suddenly drops out of the story. It happens so abruptly:

"In 1981, Goh Chok Tong and Lim Chee Onn were once again put in charge of a by-election campaign — this time in Anson, whose MP Devan Nair was going to be made the state president and had to give up his post." (Page 409.)

And that's it. He is gone. The by-election, won by JB Jeyaretnam, who became the first opposition MP, is described in detail. But what about Devan Nair?

This is like a history of post-war Britain without the miners' strike. It's incomplete.

I enjoyed reading the early chapters of the book covering the 1950s and 1960s. As I mentioned in my previous post, Sonny Yap is masterly in his evocation of people and places. He takes you back to old Singapore, vividly portraying the PAP founder members and their antagonists and the ordinary people, the poverty and unrest and the uncertainty that marked that era.

The book gets blander, however, from the 1980s onwards.

Categories
Books Singapore

Men In White

Stop press! Men In White, the history of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, has been flying off the shelves of local bookstores and a third printing of 10,000 copies has been ordered, reports the Straits Times.

Er, wouldn't it be better to correct a few spelling mistakes and grammatical errors first?

There are mistakes even in the foreword written by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. For a gifted writer like him, it is uncharacteristic to slip up like this:

"The SPH team interviewed many of the surviving players and read their oral histories, including of those who had passed away."

Surely, he meant:

"The SPH team interviewed many of the surviving players and read their oral histories – as well as of those who had passed away."

And this must be a typo. The Minister Mentor writes:

"The writers have given a comprehensive picture of the events since the 1950s when a group of returning students from Britain conceived the idea of a new socialist-styled political party."

Surely, he meant "a new socialist-style party".

Who read the proofs?

The Straits Times publisher, Singapore Press Holdings, which published this book written by three of its  journalists, will do well to order a thorough revision before printing any more copies.

Careless mistakes may be excused in a potboiler. But this is history written for posterity. The bar has to be higher.

There seems to be a mistake even  on the first page of the first chapter of this book. Sonny Yap writes:

"But get to know Chan Sun Wing better and banter with him in his native Cantonese and he will tell you in a heart-wrenching manner that home was not Bang Lang or Hatyai but Singapore."

There is no such word as "heart-wrenching" in my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English. But it offers a substitute: "heart-rending".

I did not pause to note down every howler but was amused by the spelling mistake made by Richard Lim while describing his former boss, Lim Kim San.

"In 2003, in his office in Singapore Press Holdings' News Centre in Toa Payoh, the still spritely 87-year-old said: 'We've got to make room for new blood and fresh ideas to succeed us if Singapore is to succeed.'…" (page 360)

A man may remain "sprightly" in his old age, but he is highly unlikely to turn into a "sprite" – an elf or a fairy.

The mistakes look like simple carelessness by gifted writers, for this is an ambitious, well-written book.

Categories
Books

A handy guide against howlers

Lapsing_into_a_comma
What The Straits Times needs is a language guide like Bill Walsh. Singapore’s main newspaper is prone to the kind of howlers Walsh is paid to prevent.

Walsh is the Washington Post’s copy desk chief for national news. He has to edit the news, correct mistakes, trim the fat and polish the copy. He enjoys playing the language cop. Going beyond the call of duty of making the Post shine, he blogs about language and has written books on grammar and style. Lapsing into a Comma contains useful tips which could help prevent boo-boos like these. All the examples are taken from the first three pages of yesterday’s Straits Times.

  • Armed with their resumes, their questions flew thick and fast at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston last month, where Singapore was making its debut. (From the front-page story: Singapore on radar of young scientists)
  • Before Boston, Mr Lim was in Pennsylvania, where he scored another coup. (From the same story.)
  • The country’s scientific output increased by 72 percent from 2000 to last year, according to Wiley-Blackwell, a leading publisher of scientific, technical and medical journal. (From the same story.)
  • The Education Ministry says there are more university places, relative to the size of the cohort, this year than any previous year. (From the page 2 blurb: No squeeze on university places.)
  • Controversial International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz was the most notable absence from the new Malaysian Cabinet unveiled yesterday by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who sought to walk the line between reform and strengthening his position in Umno. (From the page three story: KL Cabinet pared down; some fresh faces.)
  • He also roped in Umno warlords who lack popular support but will be able to help consolidate his position in the Cabinet. (From the same story.)

Even if you see no need to explain what’s wrong with sentences like these, you may still enjoy reading Walsh. He covers a lot of ground. Lapsing into a Comma is a concise, practical, no-nonsense guide useful for bloggers and newspaper writers. But habits are hard to break. If I have broken any of his injunctions here, put it down to the old adage: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.