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Number 1 Shimbun

Series Profile Walter Sim


No1-2017-09 Walter Sim 1

Series Profile

Walter Sim

Like many good reporters, Walter Sim has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In 2013, about a year after joining The Straits Times, Singapore’s biggest selling daily newspaper, he found himself covering the city-state’s first riot in four decades.
It began after a migrant worker from India was crushed under the wheels of a bus in Little India, a district heavily populated with immigrants. About 300 angry foreign laborers fought police, torching emergency vehicles, until the riot was quelled. Mass arrests and deportations followed.

Sim scooped his rivals by tracking down the identity of the bus victim. Sakthivel Kumarvelu was an Indian construction worker and, like many of Singapore’s transient foreigners, his family’s only breadwinner. The repercussions following the events continue: The ethnic area is now more heavily controlled, for one.

The Little India Riot was at odds with Singapore’s image as staid and scandal-free, which in any case is a bit of a myth, it seems. “You’d be surprised,” laughs Sim. There were a lot of crimes.” During his year-and-a-half on the crime desk, he covered a string of lurid corruption cases.

One involved a law professor on the hook in a sex-for-grades scandal; another a rare double murder, committed by a debt-ridden former policeman. Because of the element of sex involved in many of the stories, says Sim, “readership was naturally high and my profile was boosted a little bit.”

SIM SAYS THE SINGAPOREAN media are shrugging off once draconian reporting restrictions. “Politicians have told us off the record that they treat us as the enemy.” Still, he adds, “there is no law covering protection of sources, so it is quite difficult to go into stories involving secret societies, drug-smuggling rings or prostitution.”

That baptism of fire on the crime desk was the making of his career. His reporting in Little India caught the eye of his bosses and he was asked to cover politics. Among his highlights was reporting on the 2015 death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, and three meetings with former President S. R. Nathan.

As Asia’s earliest modernized nation, Japan has long been an inspiration to the region and Sim was first drawn here on a solo trip in 2012. “I fell in love with it,” he says. He began studying Japanese as a New Year resolution, which, he admits, eventually became “tedious.”
“What kept me going was the sunken costs,” he says. His fluent Mandarin meant, in any case, that he already had a head start on Japan’s kanji-based writing system. So, when the Tokyo desk opened up last year, he jumped.

HIS READERS, HE SAYS, love culture, trend and crime stories from his new beat – and the imperial family. “The emperor is an important figure and there is a lot of interest in him as a person and his desire to abdicate.” He also admits to an occasional predilection for “weird Japan” stories.

“Whether the Japanese like it or not, they have to admit there is this aspect of their culture that is beguiling – it’s a treasure trove of stories for all of us.” As an example, he cites the fascination with sex toys. “There are so many stories about not having an actual relationship in favor of virtual partners.”

But Singapore doesn’t have the same appetite for dwelling on World War II as China and South Korea, or even some of the European press, he says. “Singapore is taking a much more forward-looking perspective on the war. Even though Japan was the aggressor, South East Asia has been pretty open to inviting Japanese investment right from the 1950s, and that’s the stance adopted by Singaporean politicians as well. By extension, The Straits Times doesn’t harp on about history either.”

Nevertheless, when Japan’s interminable spats over the past affect regional politics, his newspaper perks up, he notes. “When Abe went to Pearl Harbor [last year] that was page one.” The 2015 deal between Japan and South Korea that was hailed (perhaps prematurely) as a final and irrevocable settlement of the comfort women issue was also a major story in Singapore.

The Singapore media is also less likely to pull out what he calls the “warlike Japanese” trope when covering Japan’s more muscular strategy in the region. Again, he says, the focus for his paper is the implications for Sino-Japan relations, the rest of Asia and the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

Sim has two years left to go in Japan; frustratingly, his contract runs out before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “I’d like to stay but it really depends on whether my bosses are happy with me here.” Still, he has plenty of time to clear up some of the mysteries of his new beat. He still finds it odd, for example, that Japanese companies ask to see copy before going to print. “I’m struggling to wrap my head around that.”

Japan’s diminished image of itself is also a puzzle, he says. “I find it fascinating – this perception Japan has that it is a small country. Perhaps it’s because I come from Singapore, which is really small.”



David McNeill writes for the Economist and other publications. He has been based in Tokyo since 2000.




Published in: September 2017

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