LIVING HISTORY

Death & taxes

A linotype machine weighing three-quarters of a tonne being lowered from the second floor of the Straits Times office in Cecil Street before it is moved to the new building in River Valley.
A linotype machine weighing three-quarters of a tonne being lowered from the second floor of the Straits Times office in Cecil Street before it is moved to the new building in River Valley. PHOTOS: ST FILE, N J COTTERELL
The Straits Times building in Anson Road in a December 1954 photo.
The Straits Times building in Anson Road in a December 1954 photo.

OUR STRAITS TIMES STORY

Luck was clearly with The Straits Times during World War II. For one, it was not bombed. Its closest rival, the Malaya Tribune, its premises were left smoking from a direct hit from a Japanese warplane in February 1942, a blow from which it could not recover. The Straits Times continued to print right until Feb 15, 1942 - the day the British surrendered Singapore to the invading Japanese army.

Within a few days, the Japanese brought out their own English-language newspaper, the Shonan Times, and later the Syonan Shimbun, from the premises of The Straits Times.

The second stroke of good fortune occurred after the war came to an abrupt halt following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two Japanese war correspondents from Domei News Agency turned up at the Changi camp, asking to meet The Straits Times journalists interned there.

They had come to hand over press equipment - albeit not in the best state - and access to the Reuters news service, they said, so news printing could be swiftly resumed. The astonished journalists could never fathom the reason for their unexpected gesture. The retreating Japanese could have easily destroyed that equipment.


A linotype machine weighing three-quarters of a tonne being lowered from the second floor of the Straits Times office in Cecil Street before it is moved to the new building in River Valley.

The Straits Times moved its headquarters from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, partly because it saw itself as a pan-Malayan newspaper and Kuala Lumpur, the Federation capital, was a logical choice. A more immediate reason was an open clash between ST's editor-in-chief Leslie Hoffman and the People's Action Party's young leader Lee Kuan Yew.

  • Making the right moves

  • 1845 The Straits Times is published and distributed from the office of Singapore’s pioneering businessman Aristarkies Sarkies at No.7 Commercial Square, now called Raffles Place. Sarkies was the uncle of The Straits Times’ founder Catchick Moses.

    1895 The newspaper moves to spacious rented offices in Finlayson Green.

    1901 After it is incorporated as a limited company, The Straits Times buys custom-built premises in Cecil Street at an auction, paying $3 per sq ft. The office and printing plant are moved to the new place in August 1903.

    1930 The Straits Times acquires regional presence this year, opening an office in Kuala Lumpur.

    1931 Work begins on new premises in Cecil Street. The new building, completed in 1933, is a state-of-the-art, steel-framed, four-storey building.

    1959 Having outgrown the Cecil Street and Anson Road premises in 1955, The Straits Times moves to Times House, at the junction of River Valley and Kim Seng roads. The air-conditioned, two-storey news complex cost $991,332 to build. It housed The Straits Times, The Sunday Times, The Business Times, the former New Nation, The New Paper and its Sunday edition as well as Malay newspapers Berita Harian and Berita Minggu.The headquarters of The Straits Times is moved from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur because the working environment is seen as more stable in Malaysia than Singapore, which is leaning to the left politically. The headquarters is at Robson House in Pudu Road.


    1870

    CABLED NEWS

    With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the rst ocean cable linking Bombay to Britain is laid. The Straits Times begins subscribing to the Reuters news agency. Cabled news enables the newspaper to provide readers with fresh international news. One of the rst news items transmitted on the cable is the result of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race in 1871.

    1883

    OLD NAME

    The title Singapore Daily Times is scrapped and the name is reverted to The Straits Times. The Overland Journal is revived as The Straits Times Weekly Edition.

    1888

    MORE READERS

    The price of The Straits Times is slashed to 15 cents, the paper is enlarged and its coverage broadened to include news about the Malay states, Hong Kong, Indochina, Siam (Thailand) and India. Correspondents are hired in Borneo and other parts of the peninsula. Articles are commissioned from Residents like Frank Swettenham and Hugh Clifford. The English-speaking community in Singapore continues to grow, providing a bigger readership. Larger numbers attend Englishmedium schools in Singapore. Queen’s Scholarships, introduced in the 1880s, allow Singaporeans to attend universities in Britain.

The third lucky stroke came when Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander of South-east Asia, praised the first post-war issue of The Straits Times and told its journalists to carry on the good work. His words shielded the newspaper from the British Military Administration's tight control of newsprint. So it was that The Straits Times was able to re-appear on Sept 7, 1945, a few days after the British re-occupied Singapore, and close the 31/2-year publishing gap during the Japanese Occupation.

AFTER THE WAR

The newspaper's 100th birthday in July had passed unnoticed as World War II raged. At least seven staff members died during the war.

Among them was chief reporter Ivan Palmer, who was killed while serving with the Australian air force in the Middle East. Leslie Hoffman, a Eurasian who would become the paper's first local editor-in-chief in 1956, was interrogated for his anti-Japanese writing and tortured on suspicion of being a British spy. George Peet, who would become editor after the war, was interned at the Changi camp.

The paper emerged from the war with a larger sense of itself, proclaiming a new identity on its masthead - "Malaya's Leading Newspaper".

The front page no longer carried just advertisements but major news items. Part of the reason was that the authorities had banned advertisements because newsprint was scarce. But at the same time, there was little for business to advertise in the war-shattered economy. Thus began the tradition that continues to this day. The paper also began to be published in the morning instead of the afternoon.

The Straits Times editors remained faithful to the pan-Malayan vision, shooting down a suggestion that the newspaper be re-named the Singapore Times in 1948, when Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaya as a crown colony.

The politically-charged times drove the hunger for news as never before. The Straits Times' coverage reflected the rise of Asian nationalism and the clock ticking on European imperialism. Circulation, advertising revenues and profits boomed.

The Straits Times was once again on top of things but the ground was shifting.

SELF-RULE

The shift came in 1959, literally and figuratively.

The Straits Times moved its headquarters from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, partly because it saw itself as a pan-Malayan newspaper and Kuala Lumpur, the Federation capital, was a logical choice. A more immediate reason was an open clash between the newspaper's editor-in-chief Leslie Hoffman and the People's Action Party's (PAP's) young leader Lee Kuan Yew.

Hoffman, somewhat ironically, was the icon of The Straits Times' post-war Malayanisation policy which promoted local journalists to top editorial positions that were previously occupied solely by Europeans.

Soon after the war, The Straits Times had also begun to peel off its pro-British identity. Its front-page headline after the Japanese surrendered declared: "Singapore is British again!" Not for long, foresaw editor George Peet.

The newspaper's changing mindset came to the fore in 1947, when the government made a controversial proposal to introduce income tax. The Straits Times, though a reliable advocate for businesses since the days of its founding, did not oppose the tax, seeing it as necessary if Singapore was to spend what was needed on post-war reconstruction and stay solvent. The business community, the various chambers of commerce, were vehemently opposed to the tax and The Straits Times reflected their opinion in its reports. But in its editorials, it made its own dissenting opinion clear.

The Suez crisis was another emotive issue on which The Straits Times broke ranks with the colonial establishment. It was accused of betrayal by the local British community. But it won over many Asian readers when it opposed Britain's invasion of Egypt after it nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956.

In local politics, The Straits Times pronounced itself comfortable with a slow drift to political progress and saw the PAP as dangerously left-leaning. Positions hardened in 1959, as Singapore prepared to hold its first legislative assembly general election and become an internally self-governing state. PAP leader Lee Kuan Yew thought The Straits Times lacked political judgment, and found fault with its coverage, especially a report that addressed the sensitive issue of merger between Singapore and Malaya. Mr Lee warned: "Any newspaper that tries to sour up or strain relations between the Federation and Singapore will go in for subversion." Hoffman saw this as a serious threat to the freedom of the press in Singapore and took the case to the International Press Institute. After a visit to Singapore, the Press Institute representative concluded that the incident had been overblown by both sides.

The Straits Times soon found much to admire about Mr Lee's economic development policies and his ability to handle communists in his own party. Eventually, it extended support to his government. The PAP's championship of a merger between Singapore and Malaya was a cause after its own heart. When Malaysia was born in 1963, The Straits Times was at last within reach of its dream of becoming the national newspaper of a unified, independent nation.

However, the merger swiftly unravelled and as racial tensions and political differences rocked the Federation, The Straits Times made many pleas for level-headedness. On Aug 8, 1965, it warned: "What is at stake is the survival of Malaysia itself as a nation, an interest of vital concern to every citizen of this country. A frightful miscalculation can bring ruin to all." The next day, Singapore's exit from Malaysia was announced.

OUR STRAITS TIMES STORY continued on...

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Death & taxes'. Print Edition | Subscribe