The founders of The Straits Times have proved difficult to pin down.
Not a lot is known about Marterus Thaddeus Apcar, the Armenian merchant who imported a printing press from England with the intention of… well, his intentions also remain unknown.
Did he, as Charles Buckley suggests in his Anecdotal History Of Singapore, harbour ambitions to take on the well-entrenched Singapore Free Press? Or, more likely, was he going to carry on the Armenian tradition of printing books and journals to advocate the community's cause?
Whatever his motive, Apcar went bankrupt before the press arrived. Catchick Moses, a fellow Armenian merchant, supposedly bought over the equipment as a favour to Apcar.
Records show he hired Robert Carr Woods, a 29-year-old Englishman who arrived in Singapore in 1845 claiming to have worked as a journalist in Bombay. "Moses had a printing press needing a purpose, and Woods needed a job," writes historian CM Turnbull in Dateline Singapore. .
Leaders’ imprint on newsroom
- IN ITS 170 years, The Straits Times has been helmed by more than two dozen editors, some of whom are featured here. They set the direction and tone of news coverage and influenced public opinion. In doing so, they also left behind an imprint that lingers in newsroom traditions and even street names.
1 Robert Carr Woods: The Straits Times first editor arrived in Singapore from Bombay in 1845 at age 29. Known for his flamboyant manner, he was the force behind the campaign for transferring control of the Straits Settlements from India to London. It was realised in 1867. An avid gardener, he promoted the planting of trees along roads and helped beautify sites like the grounds of St Andrew’s Cathedral. Woodsville Close is named after his former home.
2 Arnot Reid: The first Fleet Street journalist in Singapore, he was only 25 when appointed editor in 1888. He believed a newspaper’s main function was to report the news rather than influence how the government should be run. Under him, The Straits Times reported in full the proceedings of legislative and municipal councils and became a newspaper of record.
3 Alexander William Still: The Straits Times became known as the “Thunderer of the East” under Still, who fearlessly criticised big businesses to get them to improve conditions for workers in the rubber and plantation industries. His forthright commentaries involved The Straits Times in several commercial libel suits. But they also boosted circulation, advertising revenue and the newspaper’s reputation. His name lives on in Still Road, which connects Changi Road to East Coast Road.
4 George William Seabridge: He urged the colonial government to spend surpluses to help retain jobs and people’s purchasing power as the Great Depression of the 1930s gripped Singapore.He expanded The Straits Times operations, built a new office and bought state-of-the-art printing machinery plus a fleet of Morris Minor vans to deliver the newspaper upcountry. He hired the first local journalists, including future editors Leslie Hoffman and T. S. Khoo.
AFTER WORLD WAR II
5 Leslie Hoffman: The Straits Times’ first Asian editor-in-chief, he was 41 when appointed in 1956. He had a war of words with People’s Action Party leader Lee Kuan Yew over the coverage of the 1959 legislative assembly election. Under his leadership, The Straits Times’ headquarters was moved from Singapore to Malaya, where it stayed for 14 years.
6 Khoo Teng Soon: Better known as T. S. Khoo, he was one of Asia’s best designers of newspaper pages. He had a knack for picking the most interesting stories and turning text, design, headlines and pictures into a highly readable page in seconds. It earned him the title “The Fastest Pen In The East”. Appointed group editor in 1972, he once said his decision to publish a photo of Maria Hertogh was a mistake. Racial riots had erupted in 1950 following the custody battle between Maria’s biological and adoptive parents.
Riding on the success of the first four months, the paper is published twice a week, a smaller version at no extra charge.
FOR SALE Catchick Moses puts up The Straits Times – located at 7, Commercial Square, now known as Raffles Place – for sale, judging it to have poor commercial prospects. But there are no takers, and editor Robert Carr Woods takes over the press.
The Straits Times covers its first breaking news event, a piracy case involving the mutiny of 93 Chinese convicts. The convicts seize General Wood, the ship they were travelling on from Hong Kong to Bombay, off Singapore’s St John’s Island. They kill the captain and some sailors, but are eventually re-captured. Their trial is the sensation of the year.
In sum, through a series of quirky incidents, an act of kindness, a big dose of salesmanship and possibly a bigger leap of faith was born The Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce.
The Times of London was then already 60 years old, the Times of India was seven while the New York Times would be born six years later.
NUTMEG IN TANGLIN
Imagine the Singapore of that day. The population was around 50,000, of which only about 300 read English newspapers. Trade was the mainstay of the economy, as it is today. But unlike now, the wheels upon which commerce turned spun s-l-o-w-l-y. Goods, people and news - in the form of overseas newspapers and journals, letters and chatter - arrived on board ships that took many months to sail in from Europe and several weeks to come from India or China. There was not yet a regular steamship service to Singapore; the sturdy Chinese junks with their distinctive sails were the last word on speedy travel.
Life revolved around the Singapore River, with offices, shops and godowns clustered on its banks, bazaar- like. The East India Company's flag flew high. Nutmeg and pepper grew in Tanglin and Serangoon, sugar in Balestier. Tanjong Pagar was a fishing village. Tigers stalked at the edge of town but far more feared were the secret criminal societies, roaming gangs of thieves, and disease. Poverty was rife.
In its first issue on July 15, 1845, The Straits Times boldly said it was confident of wide circulation, especially among the merchants and traders. Its price was one Java rupee. The monthly subscription was four East India Company rupees or 1 ¾ Spanish dollars, the currencies of the time that would be later supplanted by the Straits dollar.
The issue pledged to the reader that "the principles on which the publication will be conducted are those which will ever identify The Straits Times with the general interests of the Settlement".
These were lofty ambitions for a newspaper rolling off a hand-operated press in a godown. It would sell fewer than 200 copies in it first 50 years.
But it did not hesitate to list subscription and advertisement agents in a dozen cities around the world - Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Batavia (in Jakarta), Malacca, Penang, Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Paris, London and Liverpool.
WHAT, NO HEADLINES?
The first issue of The Straits Times bears hardly any resemblance to the newspaper you see today. To begin with, Page 1 had no news at all, just advertisements. News reports ran on the inside pages, with no headlines. The stories began, without any fuss, at the top of the first column, snaked all the way down to the bottom and then on to the top of the next column. There were no photographs.
Although photography had been invented nearly two decades earlier, it was rarely used in newspapers until the 1920s.
The first news item, which appeared on Page 2, read more like a rushed aside: "We understand the Admiral is expected to arrive here today or tomorrow, as also that His Excellency intends to make Singapore the Head Quarters in future instead of Penang. This arrangement will tend in no small degree to enliven the Settlement."
The unnamed admiral's identity was revealed in the next issue - Sir Thomas Cochrane, who made a name driving pirates out of Brunei.
Other news reports in the maiden eight-page paper were the latest political developments in Europe, the United States, India and China.
These were carefully extracted from newspapers from India and The Times of London. You'd now call such news-gathering activity, still carried out by today's editors, aggregation.
The latest news nowadays means news that may have broken less than an hour ago. Then, it meant the very latest updates that were available - and these could be two-and-a-half months old. Remember, these were the pre-steamship days.
The last two pages were titled the Journal of Commerce, where the newspaper described its role as the "vehicle of mercantile information and a defender of free trade principles". This section ran snippets on the departure and arrival of ships and a table with the market prices of goods (Benares Opium, per chest, 700 Spanish dollars; Velvet 20 cents a yard). A headline across the top of the market rates table proclaimed free trade, the idea that animated Singapore: "The Port of Singapore is free. No duties are levied on imports or exports; no harbour dues exist."
It was not till the turn of the 20th century that news finally made it to the front page of The Straits Times. Stories were presented in the familiar modular format that we are accustomed to today.
The transformation of the inaugural eight-page weekly to the seven-days- a-week newspaper of 20-plus pages, with the launch of The Sunday Times in 1931, took 86 years.
For the first 13 years, the newspaper was published once or twice a week. It became an afternoon daily under the title of Singapore Daily Times in 1858, before reverting to The Straits Times in 1883. It would become a morning paper after World War II.
Back at the steamy riverside godown, less than a year after its founding, Moses had lost faith that The Straits Times would ever make money. After writing off his losses, he handed over the reins to Woods, who also found it hard to make ends meet. He went into legal practice later, setting up Singapore's oldest law practice, known today as Rodyk & Davidson.
The newspaper would pass on to a succession of owners/editors until 1900, when The Straits Times became a private limited company, with a paid-up capital of $100,000.
The Straits Times' imprint in shaping the events of the day was unmistakable. It argued forcefully for the transfer of Singapore from British India to direct colonial rule from London. In a 10-year campaign, the newspaper took frequent aim at the shortcomings of the East India Company and the Calcutta authorities, and pointed out that Singapore's links to Europe were looming ever larger.
In an editorial that appeared two months after The Straits Times was founded, for instance, Woods spoke of the poverty, disease, crime and vice fostered by official neglect: "It is now more than twenty-five years since the first formation of the Settlement at Singapore, but still, up to this hour, no provision is made for the poor, no asylum is provided for the sick, no refuge exists for the destitute."
In 1867, when Singapore became a crown colony, the newspaper could take due credit for what it hailed as "the greatest political event since the foundation of the Settlement".
An event of even greater significance would follow shortly: the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The sail boats gave way to large steamers that began calling on Singapore almost every day, and the island's importance as a trade hub grew, unleashing a wave of prosperity that reached The Straits Times too.
The newspaper benefited also from the laying of the telegraph cable from London to Bombay and on to Madras and Singapore. The move made it possible to buy a subscription to the Reuters news agency. At last, the newspaper could serve fresh international news instead of months-old fare. For the first time, readers could read the news in their newspaper before they read it in letters from overseas. The world drew a lot closer to Singapore.
The Straits Times noted the glow that surrounded Singapore and wrote in 1874: "It is very hard to be without a grievance, and we confess we are somewhat in this condition here at the present time."
- View the eight pages of the first issue of The Straits Times – published on July 15, 1845 – in our ebook LIVING HISTORY: 170 years of The Straits Times.
- Available through The Straits Times STAR app which can be downloaded free on Apple and Android tablets