OB markers and sacred cows in the Straits Times

The phrase “OB marker” cannot be found in the Oxford Online Dictionary. Nor can it be found in OxfordDictionaries.com, which updates much faster and just added new words such amazeballs and douchebaggery to its list.

Wikipedia says:

An OB marker, short for ‘out of bounds marker’ is a term used in Singapore to denote what topics are permissible for public discussion. The full form of the word is rarely used.

The term is adopted from golf, where an out of bounds marker denotes the area beyond which playing is not allowed… The term “OB markers” was first used in 1991 by the then-Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo to describe the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.

Former Straits Times editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng published his memoirs under the title, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story.

But when did the words first appear in the Straits Times?

I checked NewspaperSG, the online resource of current and historic Singapore and Malaya newspapers.

The earliest use of the words, “OB markers”, I could find was in a Straits Times report published on June 13, 1987. But it was about golf, not politics. Headlined “Payday for Murugiah”, the report described how 23-year-old M Murugiah, Singapore’s newest pro, won his first pay cheque with the day’s lowest score at the Tiger Open at Sembawang.

Tay Cheng Khoon, the reporter, wrote:

Teeing off from the 10th, his first trouble hole was the 12th where he went out-of-bounds for a double-bogey six.

Ït wasn’t that bad a hook,”recalled Murugiah. “But the ball took a nasty kick and crossed the ob markers.”

The words appeared in full in an earlier Straits Times report. That too was written by Tay Cheng Khoon about the golfer Murugiah Madasamy. The reporter wrote:

Murugiah had pushed his tee-shot and the ball appeared heading for the out-of-bounds markers when it hit a hut and rebounded to the middle of the fairway.

The report, headlined “Murugiah retains title”, appeared in the Straits Times on July 21, 1986.

The words began to appear in the Straits Times news pages in 1991. “Pushing back out-of-bounds markers for the S’pore press” was the headline of an article by Warren Fernandez, now the editor of the Straits Times.

Straits Times article from NewspaperSG
Straits Times article from NewspaperSG

“There should always be standards, but often it is better for the community to decide what these should be and create the social pressures to maintain them,” George Yeo is quoted as saying in the article. But I could not read the complete article which can be accessed only from the multimedia stations of the National Library.

“Sacred cow” is another phrase often used in newspapers and blogs in Singapore. And it has a much longer history. Cows are sacred to Hindus, but the phrase “sacred cow” is American in origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which says it means:

(a) In journalism someone who must not be criticized or copy that must not be altered or cut

(b) An idea, institution, etc., unreasonably held to be immune from questioning or criticism.

The earliest use of the expression quoted in the dictionary is from the Atlantic Monthly, in March 1910: In the office these corporations were jocularly referred to as ‘sacred cows’.

“Sacred cows” have appeared in the Straits Times both in the literal and the figurative sense.

“”11 killed over sacred cows” said the headline of a Straits Times report on October 2, 1966, about people killed in India in demonstrations demanding a ban on cow slaughter.

The figurative use, of course, is far more common. Here’s the headline of an article written by David Kraal, who worked as editor of the New Nation and the Sunday Times: “Lemmon hits out at a sacred cow – the wife”.

The article, which appeared in the Straits Times on January 23, 1966, was about a Hollywood comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Virna Lisi.

Kraal wrote:

Women walked out in the thousands. They booed loudly, and even hurled garbage at the screen.

The New York critics also damned the film as a flippant piece of philosophy with dangerous and seditious overtones.

Now why all the fuss? Because the film dares to make an assault on the preserves of that most sacred of cows – the American wife.

Finally, here is Abdullah Tarmugi, the former speaker of parliament, weighing in against sacred cows.

A report headlined “Time for a hard look at statutory bodies”, which appeared in the Straits Times on February 25, 1986, said:

Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, the MP for Siglap, said the Government should take a hard look at the roles and objectives of statutory boards to see whether there is room for participation in some way by the private sector.

He said this when he spoke about the need to take bold and daring decisions on issues previously considered “sacred cows”…

He was glad the Economic Committee had recommended that quasi-Government-owned agencies involve the private sector in a bigger way and that Government-owned companies should be divested.