SPH veteran Leslie Fong retires

Mr Leslie Fong's 46-year stint with SPH included 15 years as editor of The Straits Times, as well as three years as chief editor of the Chinese- language Shin Min Daily News. He moved to head SPH's marketing division in 2005.
Mr Leslie Fong's 46-year stint with SPH included 15 years as editor of The Straits Times, as well as three years as chief editor of the Chinese- language Shin Min Daily News. He moved to head SPH's marketing division in 2005.

The last 46 years have been quite a ride for Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) veteran editor and marketing chief Leslie Fong, who retired yesterday aged 66.

The rookie reporter who joined The Straits Times on Aug 24, 1969, became its London correspondent just three years later; news editor in 1975 at the age of 25; and had a 15-year stint as editor from 1987.

He is credited with grooming many who are still in the newsroom, including current editor Warren Fernandez, who said he was "a tough taskmaster, but a great teacher to many of us".

Mr Fong had a no-nonsense, suffer-no-fools image, but Mr Fernandez said beneath that exterior was an editor "who cared deeply about the paper, journalism, and the people who made up the newsroom".

"Most of all, he was a Singapore patriot and led the paper to report on issues in the country's best interests as he saw it. Over the years, we had many debates, even disagreements over stories, angles or approaches, but I never doubted his purpose or intentions."

Mr Fong, who grew The Straits Times' network of regional bureaus and gave sharper focus to an emerging China, also served as editor-at-large before helming SPH's marketing division in April 2005.

"It has been an exhilarating journey - trying to make a difference to country and society, and learning how to speak truth to power," he said yesterday as he retired as the group's senior vice-president of its marketing and digital divisions.

In the mix of his career was a three-year stint, from 1983, as chief editor of the Chinese-language Shin Min Daily News.

Said Mr Cheong Yip Seng, a former editor-in-chief who picked Mr Fong to run Shin Min a year after the evening daily was acquired in 1982: "Leslie was one of the finest journalists I had the privilege to work with. He had a keen nose for news, was serious-minded about the pressing issues of the day, and was the most effectively bilingual in the newsroom in my time.

"When I had to fill an important job in the newsroom, he was almost always the obvious choice... So to beef up political coverage in 1979, he was put in charge of the political desk. When (we) bought Shin Min, Leslie was again picked to run it."

Mr Fong covered many momentous events, but said that one which is seared into his mind is the Indochina refugee crisis. More than three million people fled the region in the aftermath of the communist victory in Vietnam in 1975.

"That took me to the high seas as well as the dense jungles along the Thai-Cambodian border. I saw pain and untold human misery and felt deep anguish because there was nothing I could do about it," he said.

Mr Fong's compassionate side was noted by his colleagues as well.

His successor at the marketing division Elsie Chua, 54, recalled how he once "charged into a meeting I was chairing just to see how I was doing after a car accident".

Also grateful is former China correspondent Ching Cheong, who was accused by China of spying for Taiwan and was jailed from 2005 to 2008 on charges he still disputes. Besides keeping Mr Ching on the payroll and checking on his family regularly, Mr Fong fought to find a lawyer bold enough to represent him.

Said Mr Ching: "When I was released, aside from family, he was the first to call. I burst into tears when I heard the familiar voice of my boss and mentor."

When Mr Fong moved to the marketing side, colleagues said his decisions, especially those that pushed for digital ventures here and abroad, helped changed the media sales landscape.

"Ten years ago, he was instrumental in sealing the partnership between SPH and Norwegian media company Schibsted, resulting in our foray into the regional online classifieds business. This has proven to be among the best digital investments that SPH has made as it is now worth many times over," said Mr Julian Tan, head of the digital division.

Mr Fong continues to sit on the boards of several SPH-associated companies but is looking forward to mastering a few languages,

improving his cooking and "reading all the books which I have bought but not read, and drinking all the wine I have been stocking up".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2016, with the headline 'SPH veteran Leslie Fong retires'. Print Edition | Subscribe