Anniversary special: Our historic journey, your story

ST turns 175: Previous editors on the paper's place in society

(Clockwise from top left) Former ST Press editor-in-chief from 1978 to 1987 Peter Lim, former ST Editor and SPH Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng, former ST Editor from 1987 to 2002 Leslie Fong, former ST Editor from 2002 to 2012 Han Fook Kwang, former SPH's Editor-in-Chief for the EMTM group Patrick Daniel from 2007 to 2016. PHOTOS: ST FILE

ST's previous editors shared their views on the paper's place in society for this ST175 special. Here's a read:

Peter H. L. Lim, 81

ST Press Editor-in-Chief (1978-1987)

Former ST Press Editor-in-Chief Peter Lim at the Neptune Theatre Restaurant to introduce The New Paper to vendors in 1988. ST PHOTO: KF SEETOH

"The Straits Times was colonial Singapore's main English language newspaper. The locals were not the newspaper's primary readership. It was not published during the Japanese Occupation. After Japan surrendered and the British were returning, the newspaper's local employees worked with their bosses to revive it with the enthusiasm and energy of the truly loyal and dedicated.

Then ST's bosses took the corporate and editorial leadership to Kuala Lumpur in anticipation of the People's Action Party winning the 1959 general election in Singapore. Some of its journalists were left in the Singapore newsroom. But The Straits Times did not wither and die."

After a few short years in Malaysia, Singapore had to leave the federation and to strive and survive as an independent republic. (Our years as part of Malaysia) was problematic and inspirational. The Republic of Singapore did not wither and die. How Singapore the nation survived and prospered, and how journalism as journos like me would want it practised: both have overcome the odds along a similar trajectory.

"The trajectories were powered by essentials such as vision, sense of mission, purchasing power, mastery of skills, and understanding of the limits as well as the guts to draw the line. And "175" is just a number in those dynamics.

"The most challenging topic? Easy answer. There was a time when sociology as an intellectual discipline was spoken of with disdain by some of our top political leaders. It was dismissed by them as a "soft" pursuit. Then slowly but not steadily, the realisation has been growing that an understanding of social problems - meaning real people's real-life problems - is as crucial as... well, as any and everything else.

"I wish I had done more to help promote such understanding in my time in the newsroom."

Cheong Yip Seng, 77

ST Editor (1979-1987) & SPH Editor-in-Chief (1987-2006)

Cheong Yip Seng rose from rookie reporter to editor-in-chief of SPH's English and Malay Newspapers Division over an illustrious 43 years. ST PHOTO: MAK KIAN SENG

"In my time, we tried to be a reliable source of news so readers can make informed choices during a difficult period, transiting from British colony to a state in Malaysia and finally as a young nation in a tough neighbourhood. Now, The Straits Times needs to cut through the noise produced by social media by being a place for calm reflection on the forces that are reshaping Singapore and the world.

"Two significant changes. First, the decision to compete aggressively for talent to strengthen the newsroom. Second, the arrival of the digital age now threatening the survival of traditional mainstream media. What can secure its future? Quality, quality, quality.

"Toughest terrain in my time? Coping with the rapidly rising demands of our readers for greater diversity of opinion and a more plural political system."

Leslie Fong, 71

ST Editor (1987-2002)

Leslie Fong (left) speaks to visitors at Times House. ST PHOTO: MAK KIAN SENG

"Throughout my entire journalistic life, which continues despite my formal retirement, I have always held steadfast to the belief that The Straits Times should be the platform for our nation to have a meaningful, informed and rational conversation with itself. During my 15-year stint as Editor, my senior colleagues and I dedicated ourselves to making this happen.

"This should remain a worthwhile goal for the ST today, all the more so because of the preponderance and cacophony of fake news, half-truths, echo chambers and all manners of abuses of the online media. Singaporeans inundated with all that need and deserve a trusted, authoritative and credible national newspaper that holds itself to the highest standards of accuracy, fairness and informed judgment. This is a huge challenge.

"Equally, the ST should continue to be outward looking, offering Singaporean and other readers in the region, or even the world beyond, reporting and commentary on important international developments from a Singaporean and Asian perspective, and not through the heavily tinted lenses of the US-led Anglophone media. I worked hard to build this capability, which gave me great satisfaction. Keeping the ST flag flying here is also very challenging.

"I wish the present newsroom leadership every success in meeting these challenges, however difficult the economic and other circumstances have become."

Han Fook Kwang, 67

ST Editor (2002-2012)

Former editor Han Fook Kwang at The Straits Times office in 2002. ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

"The ST played a major role keeping generations of Singaporeans informed of what was happening here and around the world. This was especially so during the pre-Internet days when newspapers were the main and sometimes only source of news. Newspaper reading is a habit and the older generation who grew up with the ST had an emotional connection with it.

"It is a different world now because there are many other sources and whether the ST can continue to play a role depends on how relevant it is to its readers.

"One change I introduced was to make the Sunday paper different from the weekday edition - more human interest, less serious, more fun to read. I wanted a change from the usual diet for at least one day a week.

"The biggest challenge for any editor of the ST is covering the Government because it has very strong views about the role of newspapers in Singapore. Sometimes we get criticised for not covering them enough while critics say we report the Government too much. When both sides complain I think we got it about right."

Patrick Daniel, 65

SPH Editor-in-Chief, English/Malay/Tamil Media Group (2007 - 2016)

Patrick Daniel, former editor-in-chief of the English/Malay/Tamil Media Group (EMTM) of Singapore Press Holdings speaking at the EMTM Annual Awards 2015 held on 3 March 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

"I have an abiding memory of a talk I gave a decade ago on the future of newspapers. I spoke of how editors, while putting out good papers seven days a week, must keep a close eye on their paper's financial bottomline, because when profits drop, the first thing that gets cut is their newsroom headcount.

"When I said my biggest challenge was to keep up SPH's average margins of 30 per cent, I felt a silence in the audience as if I'd said something wrong. Do you really make 30 per cent margins, an editor later asked me. I didn't tell him The Straits Times, on its own, actually had a far higher margin.

"Those days are gone - savaged by the technology platforms which have sucked up the bulk of advertising revenues. I'm convinced that newspapers have to find a new ownership model to survive - either be owned by a billionaire or convert to a public trust. I much prefer the latter, and predict ST will go that way and live to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

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