Sharanjit, you’re considered one of Singapore’s most celebrated journalists. There’s a lot of discourse nowadays about the value of our profession and the merits of working in it. Do you feel it’s truly dying or are people simply no longer seeing its worth?
Journalism’s hardly a dying profession… in fact, it’s more alive than ever! Journalists now have to contribute to so many different platforms, some of which didn’t even exist 25 years ago when I started in the industry. You have the news apps, online sites, social media, podcasts and other digital platforms like TikTok that now are putting out journalistic content. If you’re [a] good journalist, you should be able to contribute to all of them as I did at the BBC, where I reported for television [and] radio, wrote for the online site and produced digital videos for the BBC app. There’s so much to do and it will always have value. People need to stay informed. But they also need accurate and impartial information, not ‘fake’ news and the kind of one-sided discourse that now seems to dominate social media.
What was the moment when you knew you wanted to pursue journalism as a career?
I was about five years old and wondered why my father would shush me and my rowdy brothers when the news came on. It made it seem like what was being said was incredibly important and needed to be heard.
What’s been your favourite piece of journalism you’ve done and why?
I loved working on my documentary Singapore at 50 in 2015, when Singapore celebrated its 50th year of independence. I also wrote an accompanying article for the hour-long film for BBC online. It was an incredibly personal journey, where I pieced together Singapore’s journey to economic success; interviewing many of the leaders and pioneers who contributed to it, while also telling the story of my family and my grandfather’s journey here from Punjab in the 1930s. I loved that I had to dig through family photo albums to chart their progress which went hand in hand with Singapore’s progress as a nation.
How did working at the BBC change your perspective on the world and your career?
I started at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then went to Bloomberg Television in Tokyo (the Asia Pacific headquarters at the time) followed by nearly two decades at the BBC, mostly based in Singapore. But I also presented extensively from London. All of this contributed very positively to my career as a journalist, because I learned so much from these global organisations. It’s given me an international perspective which is invaluable in what I do now. I covered everything from stock market crashes, to tragedies like airline crashes, missing planes, terror attacks and devastating natural disasters. It makes you grow each time. But looking back, I now realise the mental health impact of covering bad news every day did take a toll. I’m grateful that I had those opportunities and the experience, but also glad I’ve left it behind. I’m now on several boards of organisations I believe in and work on meaningful projects with the UN and other international organisations. It’s taken me as far afield as Bogota, Geneva, Dubai and the Maldives just this year!
How do you feel about the role of women and particularly, women of colour on broadcast television in Singapore?
In my experience, women have always dominated the media landscape; however, we weren’t always paid as much as the men, which was a very sore point at the BBC, who have tried to address their gender wage gap over the years. In terms of women or people of colour, it’s well known that I broadcast one of my last items on the BBC’s prestigious From Our Own Correspondent programme on what I perceived as racism in Singapore (at a time when Singapore was in the news for racist verbal attacks and when a video of an interracial couple being interrogated by a polytechnic teacher went viral).
I spoke out about why there weren’t any darker-skinned journalists presenting the news on the local English news channel. As a national broadcaster, it should reflect the wonderful myriad of ethnicities we have in Singapore and when I was growing up here in the 1970s and ’80s, it did! There were many presenters from different ethnicities, and quite a few who were darker-skinned delivering the news every night. In recent years though, this was happening less and less… a worrying trend which made me feel like we are regressing as a multiracial society. It’s become much less inclusive and I worry about minority kids growing up today who don’t see faces like theirs reflected on the screen. I do believe it makes it easier to subject people to abuse if you don’t see them represented in the mainstream media. I got trolled for broadcasting it at the time, but my report has led to positive change. I do see some minority presenters on the channel now, which made the debate all worth it!
In the UK, where I have my other home in Bath, it’s feels so different. I don’t feel judged or undermined for my skin tone and I look forward to spending time in a place where for the first time in my life, I share the same Punjabi heritage as the Prime Minister. Meritocracy should rule and how you look shouldn’t determine what job you can or can’t do.
What’s been a piece of journalism or literature you wished you’d written?
New York Times journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor did the most courageous and extraordinary thing in exposing the sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which went on to spur the viral #MeToo social media movement. Journalism that can lead to positive change is so impactful. It’s not often that anything someone writes has that much power, but what they did made a very positive difference for women working not just in Hollywood but any industry.
A good story begins with…
Intrigue. You need a good ‘hook’ to get people to invest the time reading or watching it. So always start with a bit of intrigue or mystery.
Outside of work, you look absolutely fabulous. What’s your secret to feeling good and having self-confidence?
I exercise every day which makes me sound like a bit of a masochist except that I enjoy it! Exercise should be fun, and whether it’s a yoga class, being on my elliptical machine listening to a good podcast or taking my dog for a long walk, it never feels like a chore. I’ll just be a few short weeks from turning 50 when this article comes out and I feel better than I did at 20! I think we should all embrace getting older. I felt so liberated when I finally let my grey hair grow out few years ago. At the time, I was also trying to make a statement that women should be allowed to age gracefully on TV. I’d been broadcasting for the last 25 years and there was no way I was going to continue to spend time and money dyeing my hair when my male counterparts didn’t. Being true to yourself is the best confidence booster there is.
What’s one luxury item you’d love to purchase next?
Nothing! I like things that are well made and last a long time. These do cost more and when I’m in need of something, I’ll buy. We all need to become more sustainable for the planet. So, like Greta Thunberg, I have stopped buying new clothes, unless they’re sustainably made and sourced.
What’s your favourite travel destination to revisit over and over again? And where do you eat when you’re there?
Ubud in Bali—mainly for yoga. I go vegan for the time I’m there, as there are some great vegan restaurants. After a few days I feel completely renewed and revived.
What’s your cocktail of choice when you’re celebrating something new?
I’m not a cocktail person. However, I do love champagne, which really is the ultimate tipple when you’re celebrating something new! I love most champagne, but have recently discovered that Spanish Cava is almost as good, and a fraction of the price.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’m headed back to Bath where I live for half the year. We bought a beautiful Regency-era Georgian townhouse smack in the middle of a UNESCO world heritage site. I feel like a character out of a Jane Austen novel or Bridgerton whenever I’m there; it’s like stepping into the past! It’s so refreshing dividing my time between Singapore and Bath as it’s the best of both worlds; one that’s rooted in tradition and the other in the future. This century most certainly belongs to Asia, and being from Singapore, one of the most successful cities in Asia, is something I shall always be proud of.
This story was first published in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Esquire Singapore.
Photographs by Aetll/NPLUSC.
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