Reporting, then and now: The role of the press in Singapore



March 20th, 2008

SPH Lecture, 3 March 2008, SPH Auditorium. Ngiam Tong Dow is a retired senior civil servant and an SPH director.

Friends and Colleagues

Thank you for having me to speak this afternoon. As this is an SPH family gathering, I will speak on the topic “REPORTING, THEN and NOW”. Alan’s invitation to me to address the younger generation brings back a flood of memories of a time when I was one of you. Believe it or not, I was a Straits Times cub reporter in the1950’s.

After my “O” levels at St Andrew’s School, I was recommended by my principal, Reverend Canon Adams, to Mr Leslie Hoffman, the editor-in-chief of the Straits Times, for a cub reporter’s job.

All the professional training I had to be a reporter was a correspondence course in writing English from a private distance learning school, the Regent Institute in London. The private commercial school specialised in coaching students from the Commonwealth whose mother tongue was not English to write English. My literature teacher at Serangoon English School paid the tuition fees for me. I learnt how to write standard English from the many red ink corrections of the Regent tutor on my exercise script.

Years later, another tutor, Dr Goh Keng Swee, corrected the rough drafts of his administrative cadet, namely me, in his distinctive green ink, improving them beyond recognition.

The organisation chart of the Straits Times in the 1950’s was stark and simple. The entreprenurial boss was clearly Mr AC Simmons. He was the proprietor and publisher. He could hire and fire the editor-in-chief, Mr Leslie Hoffman, who in turn could hire and fire anyone of us mere reporters. All that was required to be a reporter was a pass in “O” level English, an ability to type, and speed in shorthand. The only trouble was that there were hundreds of “O” levels like myself.

You may consider yourself a Norman Mailer, but you can never ever throw a tantrum. If you lose your cool, there will be another eager beaver rushing in to take your place on the news desk. The cub reporter’s salary was $250, with another $75 as transport allowance. If there is a breaking story, you get there pronto: walk, run or swim. You do not wait for office transport. You miss a scoop at your own peril.

As you know, I am Chairman of the Board’s Remuneration Committee. The ground rules have certainly changed. HR drums into me that unless we pay competitive salaries, our star writers will leave us for the competition. The early Straits Times I grew up in had star reporters without having to pay superlative salaries. When Francis Wong reports a crime story, you could hear the heavy footsteps of the policeman walking down the street. When Geoffrey Abishegenaden reports a Malaysia Cup final, you can hear the roar of the crowd piercing the sky over Jalan Besar stadium. They are masters at creating atmosphere.

To my generation of Singaporeans, Jalan Besar stadium is the original home of Singapore football. How many of us will recall the great football of Awang Bakar, Chia Boon Leong, Abdul Rahman, Choo Seng Quee, Quah Kim Song, and an even earlier great Dolfattah, played at Jalan Besar?

Soft focus reporting is the forte of our news editor Sit Yin Fong. With impeccable taste, he selects the delectable pin-up models for the center-fold of the Weekender, which makes the day for us young bloods.

Reporting is both a skill and an art. Reporting to Mr Hoffman the first morning, he told me that he was employing me as a reporter, not as a journalist. As a reporter, I was only to report the what, when, where, and how of events or situations. The sine qua non of reporting is to get your facts right and your quotes complete. It is not as easy as it sounds.

In the days before the tape-recorder and the TV camera, being accurate and timely is hard work. Speed in writing shorthand is de rigueur. Accuracy is best tested in parliamentary reporting. Chia Poteik is our best parliamentary reporter. He is our anchor in the courts, reporting all sensational murder and complex commercial litigation cases without missing a beat. His speed in writing shorthand is legendary. I cannot recall any occasion when he was faulted for an inaccurate quote.

I spent quite a bit of time as a cub reporter in the subordinate courts in South Bridge Road. One morning, Justice Choor Singh, who was then a district judge, threatened to cite me for contempt of court for a report I had filed the previous day, which he considered inaccurate. His stern warning is forever seared in my memory. As a result, I have also come to have zero tolerance for inaccurate and slipshod work by my subordinates.

At the risk of offending some of best friends in journalism, opinion pieces in my opinion are not quite journalism. I prefer straight reporting. Joseph Yeo and Peter D’Cruz, who cover the union and general beats, excelled in straight reporting.

Straight reporting allows the facts to stand on their own. Straight reporting allows the story to tell its tale. There is no attempt by the sub-editor to juxtapose words and pictures to create misleading impressions. The straight reporter does not crusade. He has no personal agenda.

The ogre in our nightmares is said to be the imperial censor. Yet are we being honest with ourselves? You may hang and quarter me for saying this. If we look deep into our hearts, we may find that our enemy is within us. Our ego may be our greatest stumbling block.

As human beings, we all have our own convictions – religious, political or moral. If we allow our own beliefs to creep into our journalism, we should not be surprised if our neighbours and, indeed, the state respond and challenge us frontally.

I am not suggesting that as citizens and journalists we should be simply unquestioning, uncritical, sycophantic admirers of the state and the power it wields. If you feel irked by MICA’s guidelines, then let me tell you of the unremitting routine of North Korean diplomats.

In the 1960’s, out of diplomatic courtesy, I had to receive them when they called to hand over trade literature. Every presentation began with a litany of praise for their Great Leader. The senior diplomat would read out word for word the preamble while the other would record what he declaimed. The script had to be followed to the letter. It was an Orwellian nightmare for me, and I suspect for them too.

Yet on reflection, I wondered how different were the North Koreans from the Spanish Inquisitors. Indeed, how different were they from the millions of Chinese who had to drop everything they were doing at noon to listen to the Songs of Praise for Chairman Mao, blaring from loudspeakers all over China.

Minister Mentor once told me that to govern, you must have your hands on three levers of power, namely the Treasury, the Army and the Voice. If you manage the economy well, the Treasury would be full and abundant. If you train the Army well, you need not fear your foes. If you want to win the hearts and minds of the people, you need to have a free press.

Unlike western-educated liberals, to me a free press is not a tower of Babel. In extremis, censorship is necessary. While newspapers can report the number of people killed in racial riots, it will be totally irresponsible for the media to break down fatalities by race in the highly charged emotional tensions of the first days. Fatality figures by race can be released later when the police and armed forces have regained control.

The power to censor has to be used wisely and sparingly. History records that the death of Qin Shi Huang on one of his trips to Eastern China was kept away from his troops until the imperial war carriage arrived back in Xianyang, the capital, now known as Xian. A premature leak of his death would have demoralised his troops and aided his enemies.

On the other hand, a complete news blackout imposed on the Tangshan earthquake, which killed a million people in 1976 just before the death of Chairman Mao, did untold damage to the credibility of the Chinese Government. It was a bad, if not futile, exercise of censorship. In fact, with the advent of the internet, and phone cameras, censorship is almost impossible.

As reporters, our craft is writing. We are wordsmiths. To keep in top form, the writer has to exercise his vocabulary and command of language in the same way as a single handicapper in golf hits 200 balls on the practice range everyday. Dr Goh taught me how to exercise my vocabulary. He told me to pick a word, any word, and write out its five synonyms. Turn it over, and write out its five antonyms. Start with hot and cold.

Skill in writing does not make you a good writer per se. You need knowledge and content. You have to research the facts and the background of topics before you set out to write a political, scientific, economic, or even simply a human-interest story. For instance, the straight reporting and the reflective articles on the passing away of President Suharto in the Wall Street Journal and the IHT make for more compelling reading than our own. To improve, I suggest we benchmark ourselves against what we consider to be good writing in the pages of our competitors.

The role, value add, of the journalist is to make a complex subject or a profound topic simple to grasp. If the average reader with an ‘O’ level cannot fully understand what you want to say to him, it is your failure, not his ignorance. I asked many of my more erudite friends in finance and economics to explain what exactly are carbon credits. I am afraid I have yet to receive a crystal clear exposition of carbon credits in the literature on climate control.

In my more sceptical moments, I even wonder whether highly paid risk managers in banking ever really understood what are derivatives, collatorised debt instruments, and subprime loans. To end, I like to quote one of my mentors who said that if you do not think straight, you cannot write straight. If you yourself cannot understand a topic well, how can you have the temerity to write an opinion piece on it?

If I sound overly critical, it is because I believe passionately in the sacred mission of the press, which is to uphold truth, and protect the integrity of our nation in clear, simple, inspiring writing. Our role is to read the verdict of the people correctly, so that the Government can continue to retain the mandate of heaven to rule.

Thank you

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