At a farewell dinner, the editors gave [S.R. Nathan] a porcelain bowl. For the day before he joined us, the PM had told him: "Nathan, I am giving you The Straits Times. It has 140 years of history. It's like a bowl of china. You break it, I can piece it together, but it will never be the same." I was struck by the way the PM made his point - he knew the value and place of The Straits Times in Singapore's past, present and future.
Cheong Yip Seng
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Soon after [George Yeo] became a politician, he made a famous speech, and for the first time, the term "OB markers" was used in political discourse. He was using golfing language to vividly make the point that Singapore needed OB markers to demarcate areas of public life that should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price. His essential point was that Singaporeans worked better if the cover of the banyan tree did not remain so broad. He was signalling that the state should pull back and give the people more free play.
Cheong Yip Seng
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To assure him, Peter Lim decided that the newsroom adopt this approach: it was better to produce the best story than the first story. He had good reason. Finding scoops in a Singapore with many OB markers carried a real risk: the story was sometimes incomplete or, as in the case of the bus fare increase, premature. For completeness, you sometimes incomplete or, as in the case of the bus fare increase, premature. For completeness, you sometimes had to rely on official spokesmen. But once they knew you were on the story, they either prevailed on the editors to hold it until the time was right to release it, or gave it to every newspaper. The edict went against the grain. No journalist could resist the temptation to be first with the news.
Cheong Yip Seng
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The prime minister was provoked by what he considered to be unfriendly or inept coverage, or both, over many months. He concluded that the editors had lost control of the newsroom... What was probably the last straw for him was coverage of Israeli president Chaim Herzog's visit. When the Foreign Ministry announced the visit, fury flared across the Causeway. The Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, recalled his high commissioner to Singapore and demanded the visit be cancelled. For Singapore to do so after the visit was announced would inflict serious damage on its sovereignty. Demonstrations erupted in many parts of Malaysia, and at the Malaysian end of the Causeway more than 100 demonstrators tried to stop a Singapore-bound train. Singapore flags were burnt. There were threats to cut off the water supply from Johor. Malaysia saw the visit as an insult. It did not recognise Israel, and had expected Singapore to be sensitive to its feelings. Singapore, however, could not refuse the Israeli request for its head of state to make a stopover visit in Singapore, the tail end of his three-week tour of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the Philippines, the first visit to this part of the world by an Israeli leader. Singapore could hardly forget the crucial assistance Israel had provided the Singapore Armed Forces in the early days of independence, when other friendly countries like Egypt and India had declined to help. What angered Lee Kuan Yew was our coverage of the Malaysian reactions to the visit. He felt it was grossly inadequate... Coverage in the Malaysian English press was restrained, but in their Malay press, Singapore was condemned in inflammatory language, and accused of being Israel's Trojan horse in Southeast Asia. A threat to target Singapore Airlines was prominently reported... And by depriving Singaporeans of the full flavour of what the Malaysian Malay media was reporting, an opportunity was lost to educate them about the harsh reality of life in the region, with two large Muslim-majority neighbours.
Cheong Yip Seng
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Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf concluded in 2010: "We already know that the earthquake of the past few years has damaged Western economies, while leaving those of emerging countries, particularly Asia, standing. It has also destroyed Western prestige. The West has dominated the world economically and intellectually for at least two centuries. That epoch is now over. Hitherto, the rulers of emerging countries disliked the West's pretensions, but respected its competence. This is true no longer. Never again will the West have the sole word." I was reminded of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. When Asian economies were devastated by similarly foolish borrowing the West - including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank - prescribed bitter medicine. They extolled traditional free market principles: Asia should raise interest rates to support sagging currencies, while state spending, debt, subsidies should be cut drastically. Banks and companies in trouble should be left to fail, there should be no bail-outs. South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia were pressured into swallowing the bitter medicine. President Suharto paid the ultimate price: he was forced to resign. Anger against the IMF was widespread. I was in Los Angeles for a seminar organised by the Claremont McKenna College to discuss, among other things, the Asian crisis. The Thai speaker resorted to profanity: F- the IMF, he screamed. The Asian press was blamed by some Western academics. If we had the kind of press freedoms the West enjoyed, we could have flagged the danger before the crisis hit. Western credibility was torn to shreds when the financial tsunami struck Wall Street. Shamelessly abandoning the policy prescriptions they imposed on Asia, they decided their banks and companies like General Motors were too big to fail. How many Asian countries could have been spared severe pain if they had ignored the IMF? How vain was their criticism of the Asian press, for the almost unfettered press freedoms the West enjoyed had failed to prevent catastrophe.
Cheong Yip Seng
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