LIVING HISTORY

Tough climb

Demolition of the Times House building begins in 2004 to make way for redevelopment, as ex-ST TV cameraman Shahriya Yahaya holds the name plate of the department where he used to work.
Demolition of the Times House building begins in 2004 to make way for redevelopment, as ex-ST TV cameraman Shahriya Yahaya holds the name plate of the department where he used to work.ST PHOTOS: JOYCE FANG, TAY KAY CHIN
Times House staff gather for a group photo before bulldozers move in.
Times House staff gather for a group photo before bulldozers move in.

OUR STRAITS TIMES STORY

For The Straits Times, as for almost all of Singapore at that time, the split was a shock and a matter of sorrow. The management wrestled with the implication that the newspaper, too, would have to mirror the split at some point. But just as Singapore and Malaysia shared the same currency for two years and the same airline for seven years after Separation, the two nations shared the same "national newspaper".

The arrangement offered some efficiencies but was gratingly awkward: The Straits Times was a Malaysian- registered company headquartered in Kuala Lumpur but with its financial base in Singapore. The situation, especially troubling to the staff in Singapore who had no say in decisions taken in Kuala Lumpur, endured until 1972, when the Malaysian government forced the company to split its operations, and form the New Straits Times.

The Straits Times, after a 13-year stay in Kuala Lumpur, was at last back home in Singapore.

A PAPER FOR SINGAPORE

Every newly independent nation grapples with nation building. The curve for newly-independent Singapore was steeper - a Singaporean identity had to be conceived and constructed from scratch. The journey proved an arduous climb for The Straits Times too.

The entry of Mr S R Nathan, a top civil servant who would later become President of Singapore, into The Straits Times in 1982 was met with the suspicion that he came as a censor-in-chief. He, however, cast himself as a bridge-builder, never wading into the newspaper's day-to-day affairs and staying focused on his task of helping the editors to understand what the government was trying to do.

  • Times House site now home to condo

  • 1973 The Straits Times returns to Singapore after the paper splits. New Straits Times is started for Malaysia in 1972.

    1986 New Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) headquarters at News Centre in Genting Lane is opened.

    1998 SPH pays $40 million for a property at 1000 Toa Payoh North to house all non-printing operations. In February 2002, The Straits Times staff move in. Times House is sold in 2004. The Cosmopolitan condominium is built on the site in 2008.


    1896

    BIKER BOYS

    Bicycles are introduced to deliver the papers in the suburbs. The bikes are intentionally painted bright red like re engines, to convey the impression of speedy delivery of The Straits Times to readers.

    1897

    COLOUR SUPPLEMENTS

    In a rst for Malayan newspapers, three colour supplements are produced by The Straits Times. They carry photographs of Singapore, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh. Much admired, they cost $12,000 to produce and make a prot of more than $3,000.

    1900

    GOING PRIVATE

    Bringing an end to proprietor/editor days, The Straits Times is incorporated as a private limited company, capitalised at $100,000.

    In an editorial, The Straits Times denes the role of an editor in a colony like Singapore as an “echo”, someone who “tries to feel public opinion, and to a large extent represents the voice of the country.” The paper argues that an editor has a duty to criticise the government, but is also compelled to maintain its authority.

    1904

    RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR

    The Russo-Japanese war breaks out. The Straits Times covers it extensively. It takes an anti- Russian stance because Japan is Britain’s ally. Two extra pages are added for the news of the war and additional advertisements.

The government expected the national newspaper to influence its readers to good effect, to contribute to raising living standards and to become a quality paper, expertly able to analyse the world for Singaporeans. In response, The Straits Times drew up an editorial policy in 1977 that would explicitly promote national development. The newspaper set itself four objectives - "to inform, to educate, to activate and to entertain". To activate, a new concept for The Straits Times, meant "explaining, questioning and, where necessary, criticising government policies and other developments of public interest"; helping to identify and seek solutions to national as well as local community problems; providing a forum for the exchange of views and reader responses; and protecting the "Singaporean point of view and helping to foster our national identity".

Over the few next years, the question of how to improve editorial standards and contribute towards nation-building, while preserving the paper's integrity, emerged as a key concern for The Straits Times.

Relations with the government continued to be rocky, touching a low in 1981 after Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, the leader of the Workers' Party, won a by-election in the Anson constituency, becoming the first opposition Member of Parliament in 13 years. The government said The Straits Times' election coverage, including reports of an impending hike in bus fares, had contributed to the loss of the seat.

Anticipating a government intervention in its operations, The Straits Times management sought to meet the Prime Minister. It was eventually agreed that a government nominee approved by the company would be made the executive chairman of The Straits Times.

The company suggested that Mr S R Nathan, a top civil servant who would later become President of Singapore, could take on the role. The day before he took over his post, Mr Lee had a message for 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. Try not to."

Mr Nathan's entry into The Straits Times in 1982 was met with the suspicion that he came as a censor-in-chief, He, however, cast himself as a bridge-builder, never wading into the newspaper's day-to-day affairs and staying focused on his task of helping the editors to understand what the government was trying to do. No china was broken.

BREAKING THE NEWS

Whatever its other attractions then, Singapore in the mid-19th century was not exactly a newspaperman's delight. As early as November 1845, merely three months after The Straits Times was born, founder editor Robert Carr Woods complained about the "deficiency of interesting matter" to write about.

And it is true that the very early years of The Straits Times were largely uneventful. There were no major issues or "misrule of the governing" to report about, only some annoyances that it raised from time to time. Woods complained, for instance, that there was no table or chair provided for the reporter in police court.

Still, the lack of excitement in part made Woods' job harder. Then everything changed in January 1848, with word of a deadly mutiny on a ship in Singapore's waters. The breaking news event, in today's newsroom terminology, was scooped by The Straits Times - 20 days after it happened.

The mutiny involved a group of 93 convicts who were being sent from Bombay to Hong Kong. After killing the captain and three crewmen, they took command of the ship, coincidentally named "General Wood", somewhere near St John's island and ordered the remaining crew to set sail for China.

Some two weeks later, the ship struck a reef near Pulau Laut, off Indonesia's South Kalimantan province, forcing the mutineers to abandon it and row ashore in boats.

Eventually overpowered, some of the convicts were brought to trial in Singapore.

Though this was the kind of news Woods had craved, he refused to publish the story until it could be verified. The trial of the convicts was the sensation of the year. Crowds flocked to the court to hear it. For The Straits Times, there was one hitch, which Woods wrote about in his typically flamboyant prose. "The absence of any professional reporters to note down the proceedings in a case of so much interest compels us to undertake the task ourselves," he said. The usage of "us", the plural pronoun, was a matter of style merely. As the newspaper's only employee, Woods also wore the court reporter's hat and spent most of his time listening to the trial.

He followed the five-month-long saga closely, publishing descriptions of the courtroom, the spectators and full transcripts of the proceedings. His solo effort produced an impressive 28 reports and two editorials, including a dedicated two-page afternoon edition.

He would have envied the newspaper's ability today to cover and report breaking news. He would especially have appreciated the Internet.

The Straits Times took its first step in cyberspace in 1995, the year it celebrated its 150th anniversary, a year ahead of the New York Times, four years ahead of The Times in London.

The launch of the Straits Times Interactive allowed the newspaper to make a leap from publishing daily updates of breaking news events to almost-live reporting. Only a few other newspapers were online that year, when Barings Bank trader Nick Leeson was charged in Singapore with fraud, and The Straits Times website became the primary source of information for news organisations around the world.

"When Nick Leeson turned up in court and he pleaded guilty, we were there and we were ready. And practically nobody else was," recalls then website editor Paul Jansen, 62, who now runs a data analytics firm.

Two Straits Times reporters who were covering the trial for the print edition stepped out of the courtroom every 15 minutes to update the website team, on standby to post the latest news online. "We must have done more than 20 revisions to the story throughout the day. By that evening, the story had gone live and it was around the world."

The news portal made another breakthrough a year later, with its first live audio broadcast of then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's speech on why Singapore would survive his death.

Streaming audio files online - and live - might not be a big deal today, but the technology had been introduced only in that year.

Later that year, The Straits Times also broadcast Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's National Day Rally, but enhanced the audio transmission with accompanying photos and text.

Almost two decades later, The Straits Times harnessed the website as well as social media to report the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. With nearly 40 reporters deployed in 12 cities, it provided live news updates, interviewed distraught kin and aviation experts. By March 9, 2015, one year after the plane's disappearance, the paper had run almost 600 reports on the missing flight.

With technology and reading habits ever-changing, The Straits Times began a series of projects to meet its readers wherever they chose to tune in. Stomp (Straits Times Online Mobile Print), an interactive portal for readers to share views and stories, was launched in 2006. The Straits Times' online video news channel, RazorTV, was launched in 2008. In the following year, its iPhone application was released. And in 2013, The Straits Times news began to be heard on SPH radio stations. This year, it will be available on smart watches.

The Straits Times website and mobile apps have about eight million unique visitors and 100 million page views a month. On Facebook, The Straits Times has more than 550,000 "likes" and on Twitter, more than 471,000 followers.

Today, the editor's glass-walled cabin commands a view of the news hub, where The Straits Times' multimedia operations are anchored, but the mission is ever closer to the spirit of its pioneering day in the 1850s, when the newspaper was all things to all people. • ST

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