SINGAPORE: The Asia Media Interview with Han Fook Kwang

For nine years, Han Fook Kwang was the top editor of The Straits Times – Singapore’s leading newspaper, regarded as one of the most complete English-language newspapers in Asia. Mr. Han is now an executive with Singapore Press Holdings, the giant parent corporation of The Straits Times. He joined the paper in 1989 as its “leader” (newspaper opinion) writer and became the paper’s political editor in 1995. In September 2002 he replaced the near-legendary Cheong Yip Seng, who had been the top ST editor for decades, and whose much-anticipated book on Singapore journalism is to be published this fall. Successor Fook Kwang is already an author – of two books on Singapore’s founding prime minister: Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas (1998), and the much more recent Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. He is a member of the National University of Singapore Board of Trustees.

Mr. Han was interviewed by Asia Media staffer Stephanie Garcia, who writes by way of introduction: “I wanted to interview Mr. Han Fook Kwang of Singapore Press Holdings about his career path, the evolving relationship between technology and media, and the role of women in Singapore’s media and society as a whole. I found him a most responsive expert indeed. He says he finds Singapore, notwithstanding its notoriously straight-laced international image, ‘an exciting place to be practicing journalism — and have a ring-side seat writing about this incredible story’ of Asia. Fook Kwang entered university on a mechanical engineering scholarship but eventually followed his passion of journalism. And he says he is glad he did: ‘I would definitely recommend journalism as a career to others’.”

Stephanie Garcia- What made you decide to leave Straits Times after nine years?

Han Fook Kwang – I’ve not really left the paper but have taken on a new role as managing editor of the division in Singapore Press Holdings that looks after all its English newspapers (we have three English papers, including The Straits Times) and a Malay paper. So I’m no longer editing the paper on a day-to-day basis but I am looking at longer-term issues. This includes making sure we continue to deliver quality content that is of value to our readers and for which they are prepared to pay. I’m also interested in how our papers respond to challenges, with so many sources of news and information available for free, and how we can make a transition to a digital world that’s radically different from the one most of us grew up in.

SG- After majoring in mechanical engineering, what made you decide to become a civil servant and eventually a journalist?

HFK- I had obtained a scholarship in 1972 to study mechanical engineering funded by the British Government under a scheme to aid Third World countries (yes, back then we were very poor and needed help from our colonial masters). At that time it was the only way I could study abroad in a British university – I couldn’t afford it otherwise and almost all the scholarships were awarded for engineering studies as Singapore was short of engineers for its industrialization drive. Alas, I found out at university that I wasn’t really interested in the laws of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics (the football in Leeds was more exciting). After graduation, I worked as a civil servant on policy matters, mainly on urban transport issues. But after nine years I decided I wasn’t keen to be a civil servant for the rest of my life. I had always fancied a career in writing and was fortunate that the Straits Times was looking to recruit at that time. One sidebar to this story – After I joined the paper, I was told I got the job partly because editors were already familiar with my writing. As a civil servant, I wrote regularly to the paper in response to readers’ letters usually complaining about the high taxes imposed on motorists to keep Singapore’s roads congestion-free. They thought I could write, or so I was told. Moral of the story – It pays to write to newspapers. You never know — you could end up being one of its editors!

SG- Do you have any regrets in your career, in journalism or otherwise?

HFK- None at all. I think it’s one of the best jobs in the world, to be always connected to what’s happening, to be able to ask any question you want to all sorts of people (just like you’re doing now, and I’ve to answer all of them). Funny thing for me is that in the newspaper I found out more about the Government, and all the important issues it was grappling with, than when I was a civil servant working for it. Back then, I was only concerned about transport issues, and you tend to be very narrowly focused. At the paper, it could be transport one day, housing the next, and you never know what else next week. It’s a very privileged perch to have, but of course, you’ve to do something with it and turn it into something of value to your readers.

SG- Have you ever worried that the content of a story you reported might put you in trouble with the government?

HFK- This is an occupational hazard of every editor. I operate on the assumption that there will always be some stories which might cause some problems with the government. If there weren’t we are probably not doing our job well. But if every story is problematic, that’s also not a sustainable position to be in. At the end of the day, we have to go by our professional judgment and do what we believe is right, reporting accurately and fairly what is happening. One house rule we observe in the paper is that we always give the government, or indeed any newsmaker, space for his or her side of the story. I think that’s good journalism, and we let our readers decide who or what they want to believe.

SG- What do you see for the future of news media in Asia in regards to the use of technology to access media? What is the state of actually printed media in Asia? Over your nine years at the helm of the Straits Times, how did Singapore Press Holdings cope with changing technology?

HFK- There’s a very bright future for media in Asia, provided we are up to the challenge. This is probably the most exciting part of the world to be in — and for the foreseeable future. Asia is changing rapidly, there are lots of people doing exciting things – it’s a happening place, dynamic, innovative, and where people are open to new ideas. Newspapers thrive in this sort of environment because there are so many stories happening and so many interesting people to write about. The worst place to be is the media if nothing happens, but that’s not going to be the case in Asia. Technology will play a huge role because it has enabled so many people to have access to information so quickly and easily, and there’s no place where this is happening as rapidly as in Asia. Globalization is also a major factor because what happens in one part of the world – how the Greeks vote for their leaders, for example, which previously wouldn’t merit a single line in an Asian paper – might have enormous impact in another corner. Indeed Asian markets tumbled yesterday after the results of the Greek and French elections were announced. This is actually good for newspapers because it generates great interest among readers. But we have to do a better job of making sense of it for our readers. It’s not easy – how do you explain the Eurozone problems to Asian readers? But hard is good for newspapers: If it was easy and any blogger in town could do it, we would be in really serious trouble. Newspapers have the professional expertise – in storytelling, in the use of graphics, etc – to do this in an engaging and comprehensible way for readers. We’re just not doing it well and often enough.Technology will bring about many different ways of presenting the information to readers, but the core values that underpin good journalism won’t change. At SPH, we’ve invested heavily in our online products – The Straits Times is available on the iPad, the iPhone and on Android phones. We’ve to be there, wherever our readers are, and on whatever devices they use. We also have a citizen journalism site (Stomp) and a news video online site (Razor TV). But we also have great faith in our printed paper which is 167 years old this year. We’ve a loyal following of readers, many of whom have literally grown up with us. Can we be successful both as a printed paper, online and on mobile? We believe we can, and that’s what we’re mainly focused on.

SG- How do you see Singapore in ten years? Are there any concerns now that you believe will magnify or minimize over time?

HFK- I think Singapore will continue to find ways to make itself economically relevant to the rest of the world but the politics will become more interesting. It will become a more “normal” democracy with a more active citizenry and a greater diversity in the political arena, as you would expect of a multi-racial, multi-cultural democratic society. We should be able to manage this transition and to cope with the ups and downs that will inevitably come about with change. The fundamental prerequisites are sound – a fairly well-educated people, open to the world, and sound, working institutions that are professionally and competently run. But it’s also an unpredictable world and Asia itself is undergoing great change. Whatever happens, it’ll be a fascinating story that SPH papers aim to cover better than anyone.

SG- How active is Singapore’s government in influencing what stories are printed or what stories aren’t?

HFK- The Singapore Government is like any other government anywhere in the world, eager – indeed sometimes overly anxious – to get its side of the story out and it will try to influence journalists and editors as best as it can. We accept this as part and parcel of the reality of working in Singapore. But to its credit the government has been professional in its dealing with us. It knows the best way to get media on its side is through reasoned discussion, to persuade us that its policies are correct and in Singapore’s best interest. It also knows that if we are perceived as nothing more than its mouthpiece, we will be of no use to them. Singaporeans have many choices of news and information – the Internet has completely transformed the media landscape – and if they doubt our credibility, they will desert us in droves. Our overriding responsibility is to our readers – how to serve them as best as we can so they continue to rely on us to find out what’s happening in Singapore and the world. That’s what decides what gets printed in the paper.

SG- What advice would you give to students interested in journalism?

HFK- Read widely and be interested in what is happening in your society. Get to know people who know what’s happening in whatever area you’re interested in. One of the advantages of our profession is that it’s a very open business – there are so many examples of good journalism every day in many different areas. But you’ve to make an effort to read them and find out why they worked.

SG- I am certainly interested in a career in Asia after graduating from University. Is there a presence of women working in journalism in Singapore? If so, do they have comparable pay and job opportunities as men?

HFK- In Singapore, there is no glass ceiling for women. Out of the 17 editors of the various sections of The Straits Times, six are women. In fact, for some reason, the women candidates we get every year applying to us outshine the men in our writing and interview tests, and we have to go out of our way to look out for suitable male candidates!

SG- Did women become visibly active overnight or was this a slow process? Did allowing women to compete for jobs against men rub against the Chinese culture that is a tradition of Singapore?

HFK-Women’s involvement in the workforce grew in tandem with their educational attainment. When Singapore became independent in 1965, one priority was education, and resources were poured into building schools and training teachers. As a result, the population, including women, rapidly attained higher levels of education, and were able to fill up the ranks of the workforce. There is a strong Chinese tradition in education, and there is nothing to stop a Singapore woman today from rising to the same level as her male counterpart either in education or in the workplace.

SG – Thank you, Mr. Han, for your time and your thoughtfulness.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.