After two years on the Waco Tribune-Herald, I needed OUT of Waco and INTO an adventure.
So I fled the Heart of Texas and got a job with a brand new paper in Singapore, a dynamic nation-state that was big on business but not so much on freedom of the press.
Hello, culture shock.
The Singapore Monitor was splashier than the dead-boring Straits Times. The tabloid was slowly growing and, surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be pressure on profitability. I was quietly told that banks had been “encouraged” to fund the paper, so that Singapore appeared to have increasing press freedom and competition. Note the word “appeared“.
At age 26, I found myself in a bustling young newsroom, 12,000 miles from home. Given precious little editorial direction, I decided to write about a couple of “easy” topics — suicides and alcoholism.
I rang up various Government officials and asked basic questions. I was told they didn’t keep statistics on how much alcohol Singaporeans were drinking or on how many stressed-out locals were leaping from highrises. As a Woodward & Bernstein-era reporter, I didn’t react well to being stone-walled. Which explains why I lasted about two weeks as a reporter.
Welcome to Singapore, white boy.
One call from the Government to a Singapore Monitor editor got yours truly biffed out of the reporting pool and plugged into a copy editing position. That proved equally fruitful.
While most Monitor reporters were bright, English was not the mother tongue for many. And their journalistic training left a bit to be desired. As a result, some of the stories I had to copy edit were clear as mud. And since copy editing wasn’t exactly my strength…
After a few less than stellar results, I was “promoted” to Stone Sub, and thus had to read every story after it had been pasted up. In the British tradition, this was a matter of quality control and a last check for defamation. At Monitor, for reasons already mentioned, I was frequently bewildered by what a reporter was trying to say.
Even more bewildering was the paper’s internal politics. The two assistant editors loathed each other. Each was constantly trying to prove how big his balls were, while undermining any policies or decisions made by the other chap. So what was white yesterday was black today.
Still, I was able to put up with most of the cultural challenges, insanity and malevolence. Remember, I’d earned my spurs on the Waco Trivial-Herald. Ack.
One thing I could never get used to was having the Singapore Government in the newsroom. You could feel it.
Most of the time, editors simply flushed stories that made them feel twitchy. But every now and again, during my 18 months on Monitor, they’d puff out their chests and consider running a story with some teeth.
That’s when you would see the “Lizard Dance”.
The Lizard was known to be the “Government’s man.” If he saw a story that made his beady eyes get beadier, and his lizardy tail twitch, three, maybe four editors would gather around, apprehensive and alert.
The Lizard, right index finger nervously pressed against his lips, would read and re-read the story. Then finally, he’d make sucking/clicking sounds, shake his lizardy head, and say in hushed tones: “Sensitive. Very sensitive.”
And just like that, the Lizard Dance was over. The story was dead. And everyone went back to what he was doing before. There just wasn’t much Western-style excitement amongst Singapore journalism.
Then one day a rumor spread like wildfire through our newsroom. Journalists on another paper were going to protest against censorship. This was so unthinkable that our journalists were making wee-wees of excitement right on the newsroom floor, even though no one could really believe it would happen.
In 1983, people worked hard in Singapore, made their money, and maybe, quietly, in the privacy of their government flat, fussed about Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, their “benevolent dictator.” But protesting in public about press censorship? Not even.
Yet here we were. Somehow, I snuck off to where the protest was supposed to happen. Some young, Chinese journalists were inside a fenced area, looking nervous. A few bystanders like me were waiting and watching, taking photos of the journalists and the many plain-clothed police. At one point it became farce when I was taking photos of the plain-clothes police taking photos of me.
Eventually, the young journos put tape over their mouths and walked right up to the fence and made wee-wees, at least I bet they did. And then it was over. No media coverage. I doubt there were any arrests. But you can bet their careers died that day. Because that’s how the game was played in LKY’s Singapore.
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