P.N. Balji 'very proud' of his time steering The New Paper
Veteran journalist P.N. Balji reflects on his time at TNP and on how the paper has evolved in his book Reluctant Editor
When we met recently, Mr P.N. Balji did not shy away from calling The New Paper the "biggest newspaper success story in Singapore in recent times".
The former editor of the then-afternoon tabloid knows he can rely on the circulation figures at the time, which do make for remarkable reading, jumping "from between 50,000 to 55,000 to over 100,000, sometimes going well further than that".
This is why, even though his friends wondered how he could produce a paper that sensationalised headlines and dedicated much of its editorial space to sex, scandal, crime and football, Mr Balji says he is "very, very proud" of his time at TNP from 1988 to 2000.
The veteran journalist launches his book Reluctant Editor today and TNP features prominently in it, as Mr Balji offers his views on the Singapore media.
He was TNP's editor during a time when throngs of office workers, football-mad students, housewives, and men and women on the street, all wanted their tabloid fix, and I was curious as to what he thought about its move away from the previous formula to the more "sedate, serious product" it is today.
Insisting he was no romantic, Mr Balji said: "I am lucky I was editor of TNP at a time when it did not face the kind of challenges TNP journalists, and the paper's leaders, face today.
"At that time, TNP was a two-trick pony - sex and football. Today, you can get sex and football for free - you can get everything online.
"TNP had no choice, because if you stuck with the old formula, TNP would die.
"TNP is now free - you have some exclusive stories on pages 1, 2 and 3; you are selling ads. What you've done, I think, is the right decision."
HIGHS AND LOWS
In his book, Mr Balji, who has worked for 40 years in five newsrooms, talks of his experiences and the highs and lows, covering his stints at the Singapore Press Holdings' Malay Mail, New Nation, The Straits Times and TNP, and finally Today, the morning daily Mediacorp published from 2001 to 2017.
The 70-year-old writes of brushes with the Government, and his take on Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's relationship with the media will surprise many.
"I start off one chapter by saying that every editor at the time has a story to tell about Lee Kuan Yew," said Mr Balji.
"I give some examples, and I also give a couple of examples that I had personally with him.
"Once, he was so upset with something I did as acting editor of New Nation that he got his press secretary to call Peter Lim, who was my boss at that time, and asked, 'who is that chap practising Western-style journalism in your organisation?'
"When I look back, the beauty of it was that nothing happened to me in the progress of my career. I went on to edit The New Paper, went on to become editor of Today.
"So I've wondered about the man - there is something about him which is fascinating."
Mr Balji joined what was then Straits Times Press on April Fool's Day 1970, starting as a reporter in the English daily Malay Mail.
He married in 1974, had two daughters and moved steadily up the ranks, at New Nation and then The Straits Times, before becoming deputy editor at TNP in 1988, eventually taking over at the helm from Peter Lim in 1990.
Among all the days, he remembers one most clearly, when he was proudest at being called a journalist. This was in 1981 when Mr Balji was acting editor of New Nation.
Then-Transport Minister Ong Teng Cheong had been upset that The Straits Times and New Nation had both published a story quoting a source on possible bus fare hikes.
He held a press conference with all the newspaper editors and asked them to name the source, but ST editor Peter Lim refused, as it would go against the ethics of the profession.
Said Mr Balji: "I don't think I've ever felt as proud to be a journalist as at that moment."
If that was a shining moment, his darkest time came in 1996 when he was editor of TNP.
The paper erroneously reported that former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye, one of the founders of the People's Action Party, had been arrested for driving a van in a hit-and-run incident.
It turned out to be another man who had the same name.
More than 20 years later, Mr Balji still remembers the episode vividly, and to this day he feels it "is the biggest sin ever committed by a newspaper", so much so that a whole chapter of his book is devoted to what he calls the "Toh Chin Chye Affair".
Writing his book - the foreword for which is written by Singapore's former top diplomat Tommy Koh - was never an act of ego, said Mr Balji.
The idea was hatched when he read long-time former ST editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng's book OB Markers.
He was inspired by it, he said, and felt that perhaps his book would also inspire others, especially those who dream of becoming journalists.
Mr Balji said he would forever be grateful for his time as a journalist, and that TNP would always have a special place in his heart.
Now a grandfather, he says the paper made him "the man I am".
"Talk to people who've known me for a long time, before I became TNP editor, and they will tell you I was one of the most reticent people around - an introvert - I would speak only when spoken to.
"But TNP changed me. It made me break out of my cocoon. It made me more confident of myself, and I could just go out and speak publicly without any problem.
"So it really was my university of life. I am proud to say that I graduated from TNP."
Reluctant Editor will be launched today at 7pm at the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookstore, 45 Maxwell Road, #01-01, The URA Centre.