A small group of students and staff gathered on 22 January to hear the first Writers@NIE speaker for 2020, PN Balji, talk about his book Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen Through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist and his lifetime career in journalism.
Moderator Dr Anitha Devi Pillai (ELL) kicked off the session by inviting Balji to read extracts from his favourite chapter. Balji chose the last chapter, “Last of the Mohicans: Why the editors of old did it differently”.
In it, he describes the markedly different personalities and styles of three editors, Cheong Yip Seng, Peter Lim and Leslie Fong. Whilst Cheong Yip Seng lasted nearly 20 years as editor-in-chief of the Straits Times (ST), every editor has to perform a delicate balancing act on the political tightrope in their dealings with officialdom.
In the free-flowing session, questions and comments inevitably revolved around censorship and government-press relationships. With 10 years as editor of The New Paper (TNP) behind him, Balji declared that “self-censorship was worse than censorship”.
As an example of how government-press relationships are perceived, he related an incident in the book about the launch of Cheong Yip Seng’s book, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story. One question he was asked (from an ST editor) was, “Will your book get you into trouble?” Cheong’s response to the question, and subsequent events are narrated in the book.
And Balji’s own book, “Reluctant Editor”? Apparently, nobody “vetted” his manuscript, but he did say he “censored” a couple of incidents, one where he felt he did not have enough evidence, and another at the behest of his younger brother, a former Singapore soccer coach.
In all, Balji has indeed opened up the world of the newsroom and given his audience a candid and very illuminating account of a career spent at the coalface of journalism in Singapore.