Updated: Jun 30
written by Dr Renée Ralph, Co-Founder, The Brilliant Foundation
SINGAPORE - In an up close and personal exchange, Mr Cheong Yip Seng reveals his tenacity as the former editor of The Straits Times, out of 43 years, 19 of them as the Editor-In-Chief, a legacy that is revered in Singapore. He attributes his hard-earned success in remaining focussed and the passion that fuelled him to craft stories with his professional team of journalists all those years.
Cheong Yip Seng acknowledges his zealousness and perseverance in Straits Times is made possible, by his partner-in-life and soul-mate, Cecily. Cecily and Cheong Yip Seng have been married for 50 years and are celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 2020 - an admirable achievement to reach this significant milestone in life.
In his personal life, Cheong Yip Seng states that he is blessed with a fairly large family: “My wife, three children and their children; nine grandchildren in all, ranging in age from 20 years to 11 months. They all live nearby, so regular get-togethers are for me some of the best things in life.” These family precious moments are treasured by Cecily and Cheong Yip Seng, enjoying the fruits of their labour together.
By nature, Cheong Yip Seng is a logical and methodical individual. He confronts each issue, life and news with steadfast rationality, common sense and lucidity. In his spiritual awakening, Cheong Yip Seng explains: ”Without faith, life is robbed of its meaning. Without it, you lose your sense of what is right and wrong. As scripture puts it, you cannot live on bread alone. You can, but life will be dry and quite tasteless. Your faith gives you an anchor, and underpins your relationship with God, family, friends and society at large.”
Cecily and Cheong Yip Seng have been an accomplished couple to their friends and an exemplar in parenthood for their offspring, in balancing their family and professional work life. In reality, it has been not been an easy path to maintain the equilibrium in their hectic daily lives and the source of their strength is secured on their spiritual journey.
Their faith binds their souls and connect life’s perspectives on a different paradigm for Cecily and Cheong Yip Seng. Both individuals have lived life to the fullest, at home and at work, their union grounded on values of loyalty, respect, commitment and love for each other. Their concept of love is in essence of two minds and souls entwined, having the same vision and working towards a similar direction in life, leaning and learning from each other.
No doubt every partnership has its vicissitudes in life, which both have managed to overcome by establishing routine, trust and a strong foundation at home. With their sanctuary settled, Cheong Yip Seng goes to the Straits Times equipped and is prepared for the intensity of the newsroom and extra hours worked at his desk.
Cheong Yip Seng recognises his blessing of having a partner and confidant that he can fully rely on. He says: ”My wife is an excellent home builder. Cecily built us a house of love.” It is hoped that their children realise the partnership and sacrifices that he and his wife have made in giving them a loving home.
Reflecting his career as a journalist, Cheong Yip Seng expresses in fondness: ”I spent most of my career watching and covering the birth and early decades of Singapore. It was an awesome privilege. It was a dirt poor city in the early 1960s; very few people had flush toilets and life was hard. However, the spirit was gritty because we were mostly poor and full of determination to give life a go. Work gave me many opportunities to be in touch with people from all walks of life - the policeman, fireman, people who went to the courts for all kinds of reasons, from violent crime to million-dollar frauds, to political combat.”
The Straits Times is the heartbeat of Singapore, the clarity in communications is vital for Singaporeans to understand the policies of the Singapore government and the direction and future of the tiny island. It is riveting to witness how the formation of Singapore unfolded and to cover those epic moments in a daily story is essentially creating history. On 9 August 1965, Singapore is annexed by Malaya to survive on its own, its citizens are made up of foreign bound immigrants from South East Asia and Europe. The leaders in Singapore and its citizens had the foresight and insurmountable challenge to shape their tiny island, their home into a remarkable nation as it is today.
Cheong Yip Seng reminisces that “The politicians were the most memorable. They were the pioneer political leaders who conceptualised and navigated Singapore's rise. It gave me a close-up look at how they make and implement policy. They ruled with a firm hand, too firm for some, the tensions generated were a constant challenge for the media: how to cater to two competing needs. On the one hand, little tolerance for dissent on the grounds that too much of it impeded national development and on the other, the yearning of an increasingly well-educated electorate that rightly believes that diversity of opinion eventually produced the better results.”
After stepping down from his editorial duties at The Straits Times, Cheong Yip Seng continued to pen his thoughts and journalistic experience in his book titled "OB Markers – My Straits Times Story” in 2012. Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990 stated the book is a must read. "Cheong Yip Seng was a most reliable news editor, later Chief Editor of The Straits Times. He spent over four decades with the papers, from British times right up to the present day with it under Singaporean ownership. He has written of Singapore’s travails through merger, then independence, and the obstacles that had to be overcome with independence without a hinterland. He was a witness and reported these challenging and game-changing events and has written vividly on them.”
It is logical to deduce that under the leadership of Cheong Yip Seng at its helm, the stories at The Straits Times present itself as a medium of consistent communication as well as a catalyst for what Singapore is today – immigrants that have validated Singapore as their homeland, strengthened by stable governance and visionary leadership.
In his retirement, Cheong Yip Seng walks every day and weather permitting, enjoys a game
of golf once a week with Cecily and friends. He shares: “I spend many hours watching what is going on in Singapore and around the world, a habit of a lifetime, by reading The Straits Times, Channel News Asia, Financial Times, New York Times, and South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong newspaper where I did part-time advisory work until 2020 for just over eight years, based mostly in Singapore. Reading books takes up the rest of the day. I read Henry Kissinger quite a lot, and books on China, Japan and India. I am now reading a book called Bending Adversity, by a Financial Times correspondent, David Pilling, about the Japanese art of surviving war and never-ending natural disasters.”
In relation to traditional print media and the rise of digital media, Cheong Yip Seng provides an insight of today’s journalism where quality and integrity may be compromised.
Cheong Yip Seng observes: “Social media is both a blessing and a curse. You can imagine how much poorer we will be without it - connecting with family and friends via WhatsApp and other platforms, wherever they may be around the world or in your neighbourhood.
How quickly you are on top of what is happening around the world? There is a price and opportunity cost though - it is a much noisier world, with less time for contemplation and plenty of bandwidth for mischief. Many lives have been lost in racial and religious strife which thrives on the technology that touches raw nerves instantly.”
For the current generation, storytelling takes a different turn where readers have to be mindful in weeding out sensationalism and proactively seek quality news digitally.
Cheong Yip Seng explains: ”It has also devastated the traditional media platforms, forcing hundreds of media companies to shrink or close and many more to lose their livelihoods. Information is now easily available at little cost - it has also forced the more competent ones to raise their game. Those who can provide quality succeed; by helping readers make sense of the news, a service they are prepared to pay for. It can only be produced by writers with a firm grasp of their subjects and the communications skills to convey content in a compelling way, like a great storyteller who will always find an audience. So on balance, social media is engineering a flight to quality, which can only be a plus for those who need to navigate an increasingly complex world.”
For now, Cheong Yip Seng is relaxing and revelling with his loved ones in his twilight years. His keen mind and reflections in his life, will be an ongoing story that will have a happily-ever-after.
Copyright@The Brilliant Foundation