Talking about press freedom – with P. N. Balji



November 14th, 2012

At the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday 10 November 2012, I spoke about my book Freedom From The Press and Singapore’s media system with P N Balji, former editor of The New Paper and Today. We also talked about OB Markers, the book by retired Straits Times group editor in chief Cheong Yip Seng, who was originally scheduled to speak but had to withdraw. Here is an edited transcript of our dialogue.


I’ve been writing about the Singapore press and the need for press freedom for a long time, and I thought that it was probably time to try and bring everything together into some kind of systematic argument. The other reason for this book is the sense that I’ve had for a long time that Singapore could be and should be so much more than it is, in particular in terms of our intellectual and creative life. Many Singaporeans feel that we deserve more than we get in our national press.

The enigma has always been, how is it that newspapers that are not government owned – and it is a common myth that they are government owned, when the number one shareholder of SPH shares is Citibank followed by HSBC – have been subject to such enduring press controls. I emphasise enduring, because of course it doesn’t take much brains to control anything for a day or a week or a month. But how is it possible for a group of men to have controlled the ideological space for decades with no sign of any erosion of its ability to control that space?

The PAP has been able to preserve its dominance – which may be fraying at the edges, but by and large preserve its dominance – with diminishing use of power. It is not difficult to preserve dominance if you are willing to ratchet up your abuses every year, applying more and more violence. The mystery in Singapore is that the dominance remains, but the violence has reduced. Which must mean that in place of violence – in place of locking up journalists under the ISA, in place of closing down newspapers – somehow they’ve managed to preserve their dominance in less violent ways. So what are these less violent ways? That’s what my book tries to answer.

To cut a long story short, it boils down to the replacement of more overt external controls with more behind the scenes controls; economic inducements, for example, that promote a culture of self censorship. That’s one of the answers. My book focuses largely on these more structural reasons; it goes into the laws as well as the non-legal controls.

One of my regrets about writing my book when I did was that, shortly after, my old boss Cheong Yip Seng came out with his insider account, OB Markers. To be very honest – and as a journalist trained to take myself out of the equation – if you can only afford to buy one book today, and you have a choice between OB Markers and Freedom From The Press, I would say buy OB Markers and not my book.

One reason is that I’m cheap – anyone who wants to talk to me about the press, I’ll talk to you, just buy my coffee. Cheong Yip Seng is more elusive – so elusive that he didn’t show up today! He’s been an enigma for decades, even to those who worked with him closely. And he reveals things in his book that only he could reveal, because he was really at the frontline where decisions were taken. So, it’s a goldmine for researchers.

I don’t think there is anything in his book that contradicts my thesis; I see it more as a supplement. Whereas my book looks largely at more structural controls, he looks at the role of individuals in shaping the press. Primarily, Lee Kuan Yew, as well as editors like himself, selected ministers, chairmen of boards and so on. He does, in many cases, explain who did what and why.

So I thought a good place to start my conversation with Balji is to address this question – whether he believes that, given the structure that we have, the press system that we have, can individuals make a difference? Or, do we just give up?


Cheong gives insights and inside stories that have never been revealed before. I was quite surprised at some of the details, and the details show the extent to which government interference was applied: even to nitty-gritty issues like stories on stamp collection, stories on selling of carpets, and the most surprising – I only realised it when I read the book – on the use of MSG. The person who intervened was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. So, it does give details that have never been revealed before.

The editors of Singapore, including me, have this unusual habit of taking their stories to the grave. Cheong has bucked the trend. But having said that, there are also a lot of stories that have not been told, which have been glossed over. So if anybody tells you this is a tell-all book, don’t believe it. It’s a tell-something book…


So there’s still a gap waiting for Balji to fill before…


… Before I go to the grave. Honestly, I have actually thought of writing a book, and I have actually sat down in front of the computer, written the title of the book (Ink in the Blood), written the chapter headlines…. And finally I’ve decided not to write it. If I write a book I want to say everything I know and that would have two problems. One is that a lot of these things happened in confidence, so I would have to break confidence, of good friends; and some of the discussions that happened were very secret discussions.

The second problem was that of a legal suit. I can go as far as to say that one chapter was titled “The day I said no to Lee Kuan Yew”. There’s no way I can report it. I’ve written the chapter, I’ve edited it, I’ve sent it to a lawyer friend, he says, no, you’ll get into trouble. Anyway, I’ll keep that chapter. After my death – and maybe after somebody else’s death ­– this can be revealed.

But coming to Cherian’s question. I left mainstream journalism in 2008. Since 2000 or just before that, I’ve always believed that individuals in media, especially the people in the senior levels, can make a difference. I’ve seen that happen, with Cheong Yip Seng’s boss, Mr Peter Lim. He made a difference.

There are examples in Cheong’s book, and one of them I remember vividly. During an election rally speech at Fullerton Square, Mr Lee Kuan Yew revealed the O-level results of Mr Chiam See Tong and the PAP candidate. He compared the two results. After that speech, Mr Peter Lim had a call to say, please reveal also his detailed results – what did he get for Maths, English, other subjects. Mr Peter Lim resisted, and resisted till the end, and never published those details.

Peter’s argument was that it was not good for the media to publish this information, because people would wonder where we got the information, and it must be from government. And secondly, it’s also not good for the government, because people would then say, look – to what extent the government goes to demolish opposition figures.

And it’s not just Peter Lim. There are many others, too, who have tried to make a difference. But what I also notice is that, unfortunately, these people who tried to make a difference didn’t last in the jobs.

And this comes to the other point that I want to talk about: the biggest sin in Singapore journalism is self-censorship. The title of Mr Cheong’s book is OB Markers. First question is, who sets OB markers. Of course the government sets OB markers. But do OB markers remain? As society changes, as people change, OB markers have to change. But the government that sets the OB markers doesn’t come and tell you that the OB markers have changed. So how do you know that the OB markers have changed? That can only come about if you test the waters.

That is, you think that is an OB marker, but you test it. No reaction comes, that means the OB marker on this issue has changed. If you don’t test it, you will never know. And I get the sense that the media generally in Singapore is not active in testing the OB markers. In my view, the media and to a certain extent the country, would pay a big price for not doing this.


For those in the audience who are not from Singapore, I should explain this acronym: OB markers are out of bounds markers – basically limits of political acceptability. If you cross them, the punishment is not imprisonment or a fine but the loss of political capital. Which is why many bloggers don’t care about OB markers, because they don’t care about getting political capital – it’s not relevant to them.

But anyone whose job depends in some way on the government, who needs to do business with the government – and this would include many civil society organisations – for them OB markers are relevant because you cannot afford to be blacklisted as an untrustworthy group and deny yourself access to funds, to influence among decision markers, and so on. So even NGOs are subject to OB markers, and certainly press people are, within the mainstream press, because their jobs are ultimately determined by boards of directors who are indirectly but essentially appointed by the government.

But I agree with you – and I am probably guilty of it myself – we don’t do enough to test those OB markers. Testing the OB markers requires, I think, quite a clinical calculation and ultimately depends on your own values. If the worst they can do to you is maybe impose a glass ceiling on your promotion and you lose the chance to be promoted to a senior position, you calculate and ask yourself, do you want that in the first place.

So what if you are looked at with a certain amount of distrust, does that mean you can’t put food on the table? Singapore is not that bad, unlike some extremely dictatorial regimes where, if you are blacklisted, it may end your life or end your means of making a living. Here, you can cross OB markers and still put food on the table; it’s just that you have to moderate your ambitions career-wise.


Or you can leave the profession.


But it is very human to just choose the comfortable route where you don’t have to pay the price of losing political capital.

And that leads me to a second thing I wanted to discuss with you. Since writing my book – and I notice that Cheong got the same reaction – when we present some of these facts of government intervention, and government control, it is of course uncomfortable for those currently in the system, whether it’s civil servants, ministers or journalists. And I’ve noticed one defence mechanism– to say that, well, these books are about the past; things are better now; the knuckleduster era is over, it is much easier to say things, the government is much more accommodating of alternative views.

I have my doubts about that, whether things are really much better now than before. But I’d love to hear your views, Balji.


I don’t have doubts – it’s a fact. In my experience, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was at his rogue best, there were journalists who actually stood up to some of that, and of course to some extent paid the price. Now, there’s a bit more openness, and I would have expected for the testing of waters to be a bit more robust. And I am quite surprised and even shocked that it actually doesn’t happen as much as it should. And this is the time to test it. The mainstream media seems to have gone even more into a shell.


Of course, the easy answer to that is that journalists are more lazy now. But I’m very suspicious of these sorts of individual-level explanations. I would rather look for structural explanations before I blame individuals, and I think one structural explanation could be that precisely because the internet has emerged as a platform on which the government gets attacked every day, the government is guarding its control of mainstream media even more jealously.

There are really two routes that the government could go. One is to say, look, Singapore is changing very fast; the electorate is becoming more demanding; the internet is becoming more vociferous; so the mainstream media better change quickly, otherwise they will lose all credibility and be of no service to us either. I think many of us feel that that is a rational course of action.

But there’s another policy response which is that, precisely because things are changing so fast, we’d better hold on to the centre. And that centre, ideologically, is the mainstream media; so we’d better supervise it as strictly as ever before because we can’t trust anything else. Everything else is spinning out of control, but we can continue to control the media.

The other reason is that it’s a moving target. Yes, it is true that things could be said in the Straits Times today that couldn’t be said five or ten years ago. For example, we are much more open now about sexual politics and the mere existence of gays. We are much more open now about criticising unpopular government policies. So in absolute terms, of course there is an opening up. But public expectations have also moved.

The way the opposition is getting coverage now would have absolutely delighted J B Jeyaretnam 20 years ago, because he did not get that kind of mileage in the press. But expectations have also risen.

And this is not an accident. The system is designed to ensure that the mainstream press is always slightly behind the curve. It is never an avant garde institution. The whole reason for the press controls is to ensure that the mainstream press is not an unadulterated reflection of popular opinion, and certainly not a vehicle for the most progressive forces in society. The whole intention is to ensure that the mainstream press is largely a centrist, conservative institution. There’s no way we can expect the press to play a leading intellectual role until we look at those press controls.


I think it’s also natural that once you control something as powerful as media, to give that control up, it goes against nature.

What I still don’t get is, if the mainstream media continues to be behind the curve, who is the biggest loser? The biggest loser is the government, because the eyeballs will move away from mainstream media. It’s already moving. The Straits Times circulation is dipping. I still remember when Cheong Yip Seng was editor in chief, he would boast we don’t have to worry about circulation as long as there is a housing building programme. Every time there is a new block of HDB flats, our circulation will go up. How things have changed. Now the Straits Times even offers massage chairs in a contest if you become a subscriber.

And there is no other platform for the government to get across its messages. My guess is that they don’t think they have reached the danger zone yet.

Audience member:

As an outsider I’ve been quite surprised to see issues like xenophobia, HIV and gays so openly spoken about. Why is it so important to talk about politics – isn’t it enough to talk about social and health related issues? Some would argue that if you open the social space – that’s what’s needed now?


Isn’t it OK, if you have this flowering in different social sectors, for your politics to be controlled? I think at some point all social policies touch on politics. You can pursue certain causes, whether it’s animal rights or workers rights or gay rights up to a point; beyond a certain point, it does threaten government dominance in some way.

Pursuing animal rights at some point becomes a threat to the economic viability of the Singapore Zoo; so at some point it stops being a soft and fuzzy issue and affects what the government considers to be the bottom line. So I don’t think it’s possible to compartmentalise those issues.

Audience member:

Perhaps the majority of people may have made a Faustian pact, that as long as things are OK, we are not concerned about press freedom. As the left wing theorist Gramsci said, there is a cultural superstructure which governs all of us; after a while, we internalise all these things and therefore it becomes naturalised, and we don’t see anymore that we have no press freedom. As long as there is no other issue on which this issue of press freedom can ride on, it will never become a major issue, and therefore the government can calibrate and doesn’t have to use force. Would you agree that it really doesn’t matter to most people?


I will keep my answer short – Yes.


I don’t really agree, Cherian. Since I left my fulltime job four years ago, I have had this great opportunity to meet all kinds of people. If you use the term press freedom, then it becomes very narrow; but if you talk in general terms, in which press freedom is just one aspect of a gamut of issues, then I think it’s not just the upper crust that talk about the issues; a lot of people are very upset about the things they think happen in Singapore. So I am not that convinced that it is only a small group of people.


I’m going to do a Mitt Romney and say yes to you, too. I absolutely see where Balji is coming from. If you ask the average Singaporean, whoever that is, do you agree we should have more press freedom and human rights, they will say: I don’t know, we are an Asian society, etc.. It kind of activates certain things we have been brought up to believe. But, if you ask: if there is a disagreement between people like you and the government, do you think newspapers and journalists should side with you or with the government? – I think most ordinary people will say, oh, side with us. What is that, if not press freedom? So I think often it’s the way the question is asked.

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