Singapore editor Balji launches tell-all book


[Singapore] A new book has shed more light on how Singapore’s authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew rapped the knuckles of independent-minded journalists whom he deemed to have failed to toe the official line. In his memoir, The Reluctant Editor- The Singapore Media as Seen Through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist -, P.N. Balji shared how, as acting editor of the New Nation, breaking a government embargo on a major policy statement in February 1981 incurred Lee’s immediate wrath. “Who is the journalist practicing Western journalism?” Lee demanded of the editor-in-chief Peter Lim, through his press secretary. His bosses managed to pacify the Prime Minister.

Balji who was the editor of the afternoon tabloid until 1982, had feared for the worst because of Lee’s record of dealing with journalists who breached his dictate on the role of the media. He wrote: “Some have been detained without trial, some blackballed and others forced to leave journalism, and even the country.” Lee spelled out the responsibility of the media in his speech at the International Press Institute general assembly on June 9, 1971: “Freedom of the Press, freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore and to the primacy of purpose of the elected government.” For him, there is no Fourth Estate function for the media even though Singapore, (which Lee ruled as Prime Minister and Minister Mentor from 1959-2011), a former British colony, has the attributes of parliamentary democracy.

Balji, who closed his career as editor of Today, tabloid rival of The national morning daily The Straits Times, also recounted in his book the unhappy fate of a fellow journalist Mary Lee who incurred the ire of Lee by her provocative column on The Great Paper Chase arguing that the pursuit of certificates and degrees were a waste of time. This line of thinking contradicted the state education policy. Lee demanded that the editors sack her, but she was moved to a sub-editor’s job.

In 1975, knowing that her independent views would get her into more scraps with Lee, she quit and left for London. In 1995, she returned to Singapore and was taken on as a sub-editor by the New Paper where Balji was editor All was well until the BBC interviewed her for comments on the decision by the Singapore government to pay its ministers premium salaries. “It was okay to pay basketball star Michael Jordan millions because his skills were self-evident. But ministers? Their skills, if they had any, can’t. be seen,” she said on air. Mary’s views contradicted Lee whose controversial high-pay policy was designed to attract talent and prevent corruption. A taboo subject for the media. Acting under pressure from the top, the editors demoted her and cut her pay. Those were the years of living dangerously for Singapore journalists who dared. No darling of the media, but respected for his nation-building achievements, Lee passed away on March 23, 2015.

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