Ric Saludo’s former colleague Roger Mitton contributed this article
Earlier this month, I bought a newly published book called OB Markers: My Straits Times Story by Cheong Yip Seng, the former chief editor of Singapore’s flagship newspaper.
OB or “out-of-bounds” markers indicate areas that are off limits to golfers, so that if a player hits a ball beyond them, he incurs a penalty. In Singapore, the term was adopted to signal the extent of permissible reporting by journalists at The Straits Times and other publications.
The book’s author, Cheong, became chief editor during the time of former authoritarian Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose boundaries were narrow, eccentric and rigorously patrolled.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me reveal that for several years I was a correspondent for The Straits Times and that Cheong remains a friend of mine.
He had to keep all his journalists within Lee’s strictures — a task some say he performed too willingly, without trying hard enough to get the markers pushed back, if not scrapped.
My sense is that Cheong resisted on the rare occasions he felt there was a chance of changing Lee’s mind. But when he knew it was a lost cause, he obeyed and moved on.
His book is at its best when it relates some of these altercations, as well as offers insights about Lee and his successors Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong. It is at its worst when it fudges the chance to reveal the nitty-gritty details behind some of the pivotal incidents that occurred on Cheong’s watch.
To be sure, there are revelatory parts in OB Markers, as various reviews have praised. Paul Ananth Tambyah, writing in the opposition Singapore Democratic Party site, praises the book as “an incredible resource for those trying to understand the control of the media and Singapore’s brand of self-censorship.”
Among many other disclosures, Cheong recounts that strongman Lee once threatened him in his earlier years: “If you print this, I will break your neck.” And as recently as 2006, Singapore’s founding father called the top journalist after elections “livid” over a column by another writer about the government policy of putting opposition districts last in public works upgrading.
But there were glaring omissions like the so-called Marxist conspiracy in 1987, when a group of idealistic young Singaporeans were detained for supposedly hatching a plot to destabilize the government. It was always a preposterous allegation, later queried even by ministers, and the reporting of it caused major upheavals among the domestic and foreign press.
Cheong does not touch the subject. He does mention the 1991 invasion of Times House, the paper’s main office, by internal security agents, who scoured the records of journalists involved in a scoop that revealed estimates of GDP figures.
Hauled in for questioning, Cheong’s staffers said they were treated in a loutish manner. One told me the agents’ nasty behavior “was just like something out of a gangster movie”. The subsequent conviction and fining of two journalists for simply doing their job left the newsroom emotionally battered and shell-shocked.
None of this comes through in the book – perhaps because Cheong was too detached. As he told me at the time: “I am not losing any sleep over it.”
Likewise, his account of the 2005 arrest and conviction of the paper’s China correspondent, Ching Cheong (no relation), on charges of spying for Taiwan, is a lamentable whitewash to put it mildly. In the book, he simply regurgitates the “official” version of this episode – a version that is full of holes and baffling inconsistencies.
Cheong writes: “We had no reason to believe that our man was a spy.”
Really? So we must accept that for no good reason Beijing jailed a veteran reporter for an essentially state-run newspaper from Singapore, a country with which it has close and cherished ties?
Gimme a break, my friend.
Ching Cheong, as well as filing stories to The Straits Times, also wrote clandestine reports for the Foundation for International and Cross-Strait Studies in Taipei about events in mainland China.
The Times’ own internal inquest later revealed that he even hired Chinese stringers, some of them with government connections, to secretly gather information for these reports.
The inquest also showed that Ching Cheong’s editor, Leslie Fong, was aware of these cloak and dagger operations. Indeed, with Fong’s approval, Ching Cheong claimed expenses to pay his stringers, while he himself received large sums from FICS, in addition to his own high salary.
It is sad that my friend’s book does not come clean about this sordid affair. Had he done so, a rather pedestrian memoir could have been turned into a headline-grabbing best-seller.
Last August, Cheong spoke to The New Asia Media journal, published by the Asia Pacific Media Center of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He said Singapore’s stringent media controls emerged at a time when the city state struggled with fierce racial tensions, hefty financial burdens, and anti-Chinese sentiments in Malaysia and Indonesia.
“Many people thought multi-racial Singapore could not survive,” Cheong recounted. “Therefore, its political leadership had an acute sense of vulnerability, and was firm in its view that only with strong government, and minimal dissent, could it overcome the considerable odds. It believed in tough love. . . . The medicine might have been too bitter for the more liberal-minded, but strongman rule had the support of the vast majority of the citizens.”
That may be so for Singapore’s government back in the 1960s. But for Cheong writing in the 2010s, there is no excuse for keeping mum on some of the inconvenient truths in media during the reign of Lee Kuan Yew.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times of Singapore.