In a special interview to mark SG50, LIV sits down with presenter and producer Sharanjit Leyl to talk about career, style and her thoughts on Singapore’s landmark half-century of independence.
Hi Sharanjit! Tell us a little about your childhood.
I was born here in Singapore in the early seventies, and I still remember it as a developing country. My earliest memories are of going to the river, and how unpleasant it was because it was filthy and stank to high heaven! To go down there now and see the contrast in my lifetime is a real eye-opener – and I like to think I’m not that old. I have a real sense of pride now about having being born here, which I didn’t have before.
I moved away as a teenager to the US, which was a big adjustment, because here in Singapore in the 1980s you had a very sheltered lifestyle and weren’t exposed to much of the world. After doing a masters degree in Canada, I came back here briefly, and then worked in Tokyo for a couple of years. I returned here for personal reasons – my father was terribly sick with a brain tumour. Unfortunately, he passed away, but it was good to have been with the family for his last few days.
Describe a typical day in your working life.
I have a whole variety of roles at the BBC – I’m a producer and a presenter, and I also report. My anchoring role sees me up at 3am, doing my own hair and makeup, and getting to the studio for 4am to read about any overnight news developments. I have wonderful producers who will send me briefing notes the day before, and I’ll write my own questions. Then, I’m on air at 6am for Newsday, followed by Asia Business Report at 6.30. As the show is live, you’re reacting to any breaking news or technical issues – you just have to do what you can to make things look seamless, and that’s easier the more seasoned you are. It can certainly be quite stressful at times, but I enjoy it as one of the challenges of the job – although it can be tough when you’re getting started!
Producing involves coming up with the ideas – for example, you have to get a guest in to talk about a certain topic. You actually get to decide, in an objective manner, what gets on the news, as opposed to simply delivering it.
Reporting is similar in that you decide which stories you feel would be interesting to cover. It stretches you as a journalist, because you’re going out and about and covering things on the ground. In the last year or so, there has been quite a lot of breaking news, so our team is being deployed to cover this news pretty much for the first time. It’s stretched us because we’re now on call for any unpredictable events around the region – you could get a call in the middle of the night to be prepared to board a plane first thing in the morning! It’s exciting though, and of course, being on television is nice, because you get a certain amount of recognition and people knowing who you are.
How has news broadcasting changed over the years?
It has definitely developed, technology-wise, though, thankfully, there were already computers when I started. Camera sizes have changed – they’re much smaller now! And the functionality to report live has progressed. You also have the option to broadcast good quality television on much more affordable devices. Also, stories have changed. I started out reporting on the Asian financial crisis; now there are a lot more stories focused around human rights, and I find political news particularly fascinating.
Has working in television influenced your lifestyle and fashion sense? You always look immaculate.
I think you always have to be aware of looking professional. I’d say I’ve developed a somewhat conservative look. As much as I’d love to have cool streaks in my hair, I just can’t! The image you project to the world is closely watched. In terms of my lifestyle, it’s been tough because it is exhausting. Being on TV is hours of performance, so you have to be able to keep your energy levels up in order to project yourself the whole time. For this reason, I’ve been a runner for years; it keeps me fit, healthy and focused.
Tell us your career milestones.
In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to report, which I did less as a financial journalist. I enjoy being able to cover a story on the ground. Unfortunately, I covered all of the regional plane disasters last year. With my mother having been born in Malaysia, there was always an element of empathy, because it was such a horrid thing to happen to one country in a year.
I’ve also had the privilege of interviewing various presidents of the World Bank, state leaders and more. It’s extraordinary to meet such incredible people at the top of their game; getting to know what makes them tick is my favourite part of the job.
Do you have advice for women seeking credibility in the workplace?
I would advise them to always take their jobs seriously, no matter what the industry. Throughout my media career, there have been many women in significant roles – female presenters and producers have always played a big part in programmes, and thankfully there hasn’t been much of a “glass ceiling”. Hard work is always key, though.
In light of Singapore’s 50th anniversary, what would you say about its cultural and artistic developments over the years?
The country’s achievements in 50 short years have been immense. It’s a story I’ve tried to tell through a BBC documentary called Singapore at 50. In the film, I tell the incredible story of how Singapore developed from the Third World to the First World. It features some of our most prominent politicians and nation-builders, as well as some of our critics, to give a well-rounded perspective on what makes the nation tick today.
I also embarked on an intensely personal journey for this, retracing my family’s route to the island and discovering how their lives have changed in the move from rudimentary villages to the tall, modern skyscrapers where many Singaporeans live today. The documentary not only charts this history but also explores the emotional impact it’s had on the local people.