We present excerpts from a new book, Reluctant Editor, by the veteran Singapore journalist, P.N. Balji, who worked as the editor of two Singapore newspapers, The New Paper from 1990 to 2000, and then the TODAY newspaper from 2000 to 2003, where he was also the CEO. He has been a media consultant to the Singapore government’s Ministry of Home Affairs, and adjunct professor at National Technological University. We acknowledge with thanks the publisher, Marshall Cavendish, for permission to publish these excerpts.
Singapore journalists hardly write about their work. In fact, they take their stories to their graves. A journalist of forty years’ standing, P.N. Balji, is joining a very small band of editors who are bucking this trend. His first book, Reluctant Editor, is full of stories of his life as a journalist. In this excerpt, he writes about how The New Paper was responsible, for the first time, to recruit journalists from India. “They were some of the finest I have worked with,” he remarks. Other newspapers in Singapore also saw their value and went on a hiring spree in India.
ABHIJIT NAG WAS GAUCHE. EARNEST AND SOFT-SPOKEN, HE WAS not suave or street smart as some might expect a journalist to be, but he could use words to dramatic effect.
We were looking for journalists to launch The New Paper when we asked him and a few others to go to New Delhi for an interview in December 1987. We got them to take written tests. Abhijit produced a piece that touched a nerve. Headlined “Toilet Baby,” it was about a newborn found in a toilet. Although it seemed a Gothic flight of fantasy, it was grounded in reality. Such was life in his hometown.
He was from Calcutta and he was no fan of the city. Years later, he would tell me exactly why, without skipping a beat:
A congested metropolis, the former capital of the British Raj had fallen on hard times and was taking it hard, abounding in poets, agitators and beggars. It was a city where cultural soirees at night alternated with angry demonstrations and running battles between the police and stone-throwing agitators during the day. Where young men remained unemployed for years because businesses and industries were shutting down and moving out following strikes and agitations by the communists who had been voted to power in the state of West Bengal of which Calcutta was the capital. It was a city of pavement dwellers, where destitutes slept on the streets, and abandoned babies didn’t even make the news.
The interview panel was impressed with Abhijit’s turn of phrase, the elegance of his language and his uncanny ability to write short, bold and accurate headlines that would be perfect for a paper like The New Paper. It was conceptualised as a paper that was big on colourful pictures and graphics, and less fixated on essays. For a Singapore whose very notion of a newspaper had been shackled to The Straits Times, The New Paper was intended to pioneer a new form of journalism that captured the spirit of the times, to examine and understand an era that Singapore was entering with some trepidation. A younger population with lots of money to spend was hungry for fresh avenues to let off steam, albeit with some kind of discretion and control. And perhaps, they wanted a new kind of newspaper. On 26 July 1988, this new blend of experiment and experience bore fruit, with an influx of talent from India and some other countries helping us Singaporeans to embark on this new journey.
Most of the journalists we interviewed during those foggy and frosty days in New Delhi showed skills and traits that were in short supply in Singapore, especially the hunger to excel. Prominent among those we engaged were Ravindra Kumar, who returned to India after his three-year stint in Singapore and is now editor and managing director of The Statesman; Tamal Mukherjee, who went on to become a senior producer with Singapore’s Channel News Asia; Soutik Biswas, who is now India correspondent for the BBC; and Ravi Shankar Narasimhan, who led a nomadic life until he joined China Daily, where he is in charge of its overseas editions.
In the corridors of gossip in Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which publishes The New Paper and other titles in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, mischievous whispers seemed to be gaining ground. “Balji is running an Indian mafia,’’ some would complain during lunch breaks and drinking sprees.
The reality was something quite different. It was S.R. Nathan, SPH’s executive chairman at the time, who suggested we look to India for the journalists we needed. He even had his contact in Delhi place advertisements in newspapers and arranged the interviews for us. The pay-and-perks package was attractive, with monthly salaries of around S$3,000, bonuses, a trip back home and rent paid for by the company. The Indian expat journalists more than returned the favour with their commitment, work attitude and, above all else, the quality of their work. They were all recruited as sub-editors but they also wrote commentaries and went on reporting assignments. They impressed the American and Australian editors, few of whom had encountered journalists from India before. Among the western expats who had been specially recruited to simplify the language of reporters’ copy was John Lang, who had been a former senior editor with the magazine US News & World Report. With disarming candour, John said: “You should sack all of us and recruit more Indian journalists. Their salaries are not high, their language is good, and they are willing workers.”
Soutik Biswas supplied some useful socio-economic and political context to the “exodus” of Indian journalists at the time. India, he said, was a very different country at the time when The New Paper was looking to recruit journalists, and the paper was able to attract Indian journalists to leave their jobs to work in Singapore. “It was a desperate time, and desperate times lead to desperate measures, like leaving the country and looking for greener pastures.”
He goes on to explain just how desperate things were in India then:
The 1980s and 1990s were our worst decades. The economy was in the dumps. The Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple to flush out Sikh separatists, (and this was) followed by the revenge killing of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The anti-Sikh riots convulsed Delhi. And thousands of people in the city of Bhopal were killed after toxic gases leaked from a chemical factory, the world’s worst industrial accident. Calcutta was in shambles after more than a decade of uninterrupted Communist rule, with industrial strikes and electricity blackouts.
Calcutta native Abhijit, like many of the Indians who arrived in 1988, thrived in a Singapore where street traffic was never held up by protest marches, where strikes were inconceivable, where jobs were so plentiful that locals couldn’t fill them all and foreigners had to be brought in. The New Paper newsroom, when it was launched in 1988, was highly cosmopolitan, employing Americans, Britons, Australians, Indians, Filipinos and Malaysians, as well as Singaporeans.
Their hardworking nature, skills and ability to turn around an article without fuss amazed many editors at The New Paper. Patrick Daniel, then editor of the Business Times, was quick to spot the potential of the Indians and sparked the second Indian wave by recruiting many commentary writers, reporters and sub-editors. Soon after, The Straits Times followed suit. Indian fever was well and truly stoked. As Soutik Biswas noted of that period:
The irony is that it wasn’t really a bad time to be a journalist in India. But many of the people … were stellar desk hands with good experience as sub-editors and section editors. Singapore offered better pay and a higher quality of life, and many moved to escape the grim realities at home, like many other Indians who emigrated to the West around that time.
It was actually then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who had said in 1993 that he wanted to create an Indian fever. That was five years after The New Paper’s own Indian wave. On a national scale, the India-Singapore romance is now in full bloom, with Singapore’s cheerleading efforts seeing India roll out the red carpet for all ten ASEAN states to attend the South Asian giant’s Republic Day in New Delhi, and meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top officials in 2018.
The India-Singapore connection has come a long way with economic, diplomatic, security, strategic and social ties being expanded at a fast clip. Economic and trade links are the headline-making news, but the sub-text and the more geo-political story is about security and strategic relationship with India seen as a counter weight to a China that is showing off its muscle, especially in the South China Sea where some ASEAN nations and China have competing claims.
The wooing of India has opened Singapore’s stubborn immigration gates to a new class of emigres and expats from the subcontinent: bankers, businessmen, professionals and IT gurus. Their presence has become visible with modern-day luxe ghettos being formed in small parts of the Singapore landscape. If you go to the Meyer Road area in the east, their presence is unmistakable, with the smell of curries and the sound of Bollywood songs attacking your senses. They are the third Indian wave. The first happened when the British colonialists brought convict labour to Singapore to build roads, buildings and other infrastructure; the second came when independent Singapore wanted to fill a chronic need for construction workers and cleaners; and the final surge is happening now with high-end Indians coming in droves to fuel our economy. An Indian expatriate who took up Singapore citizenship describes them as the “Orchard Road Indians,” referring to their high spending power. This has, in turn, smashed the stereotype of the foreign Indian, Amrit Barman says in his book, India Fever: The New Indian Professional in Singapore.1 These Indians receive VIP treatment in upper-crust boutiques, top-class restaurants and pubs. My wife, Uma, experienced this at first hand. Mistaking her for an Indian national, the salesgirl at Tangs in Orchard Road was extremely hospitable and courteous. “Are you an expatriate?” the lady asked her. Uma had to disappoint her by saying no and leaving the department store without buying anything.
SPH was quick to spot the spending power of this group of expatriates and launched a free weekly newspaper in October 2008 targeted at this free-spending group and the advertisers who wanted to reach them. The working title for the weekly was catchy and direct: IndEx – “Ind” for Indian and “Ex” for expatriates. Wiser minds, including that of the late Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Balaji Sadasivan, counselled against this title as it might cause uneasiness in the Singaporean Indian community. Finally, SPH settled on the title tabla! Run on a shoe-string budget, the publication has continued to survive despite a slowing economy and declining print revenue.
Several of the Indian journalists who joined The Straits Times and Business Times have stayed on with SPH, adding value to the papers’ editorial coverage. The Straits Times’ economics specialist, Vikram Khanna, and The Straits Times’ regional commentator, Ravi Velloor, are heavy hitters with their insightful analyses which add depth and breadth to the newspapers they write for. Their “brand-name” commentaries continue to be valued by the elite.
The journalist I wrote about at the beginning of this chapter, Abhijit Nag, decided to stay on in Singapore, even though he left The New Paper soon after 2000. He now works for a magazine called India Se. I have a soft spot for Abhijit. His introverted nature and his writing flair drew me to him. In many ways, Singapore had spoilt him. He keeps moaning about the decadent state of his birthplace, Calcutta, and lights up each time the conversation turns to Singapore, especially the National Library, where he drowns himself in new books and old classics. Singapore, where he has a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat and a coveted permanent residency, is his home for now. Abhijit finds solace in a line from a Walter Savage Landor poem: “I strove with none, for none was worthy of my strife.”
Exactly 30 years after he first arrived here chasing the rainbow of life, Abhijit now sees a new Singapore, a Singapore that is changing dramatically. It is getting more expensive, the city is getting overcrowded and at 62, he knows that getting a well-paying job in a news organisation like SPH is a pipe dream. He recalls a Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want.” The only craft he knows, journalism, looks so different now as well. Click bait and search engine optimisation are more in demand now than a well-turned phrase. The thrill, he says, is gone.