COMMENT: Singapore Press Holdings and the wasted media opportunity

·6-min read
(PHOTO: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
(PHOTO: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

SINGAPORE — It was a wasted opportunity, with the debate over Singapore’s biggest media shake-up in recent times sinking to the lowest common denominator. The online world and instant messages were dominated by just one word that has already become passé. And just one man.

Ng Yat Chung, the Singapore Press Holdings chief executive, wrote himself into Internet infamy by taking umbrage at the question asked by a reporter from the rival media house on whether the new SPH Media will emphasise more on editorial integrity than advertisers’ needs. The former Chief of Defence Force shot back by telling the reporter to look at her own house before throwing stones at his company.

Like a bull in a china shop, he went crashing about. “The chairman (of SPH) is a gentleman. I am not,” he barked.The Internet gleefully responded with memes, gifs and even T-shirts centred on the word umbrage.

If only the people behind all this could have spent their creative energy analysing what it means for SPH Media to be separated from its profit-making parent. Above all else, this is the key issue: Will The Straits Times, the SPH media flagship, be allowed to practise journalism that its readers will be proud of? And will editors allow more space for contrarian views on government policies?

Will the government allow it?

A new Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) logo is unveiled at a ceremony marking the company's 25th anniversary in Singapore on March 30, 2009
A new Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) logo is unveiled at a ceremony marking the company's 25th anniversary in Singapore on March 30, 2009

For that to happen, the government, the biggest stakeholder in the media business, needs to relax its vice-like grip on the paper. That control has chipped away at the paper’s credibility, especially after the 2011 elections, which saw the People’s Action Party suffer its worst-ever election performance. The next year, ST editor Han Fook Kwang, who displayed a rare sense of editorial integrity and independence by allowing his journalists to cover the 2011 election in a balanced way, was replaced by present newsroom leader Warren Fernandez. This saw the departures of a few talented editors and journalists. ST has not recovered from that blow as many of them have not been replaced by experienced and talented journalists .

An opportunity to discuss Singapore’s media policy in earnest came at Monday’s (10 May) Parliament session. Outgoing Minister of Communications and Information S Iswaran went through old ground and in the process pushed the debate back into the mud.

PAP Member of Parliament Jessica Tan’s question about talent should have been sharper. ST has lost some talented people; have these people been replaced? Iswaran got away with a wishy-washy answer.

Next, editorial quality, which Iswaran addressed at length in Parliament. He talked about surveys, conducted by the likes of Edelman and the Institute of Policy Studies, of Singapore readers who have said local media is a trusted product. A small but growing group, I am sure, won’t agree with the results. The rest have no real way of comparing ST with other news products.

And when asked by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh about how editorial independence can be ensured at the new media entity, Iswaran insisted that such a culture already exists in the country’s news media, and that Singh was doing journalists and editors a “disservice” by suggesting otherwise.

The one serious mainstream media competitor to ST, albeit a small one, is TODAY. The evidence is overwhelming that the much smaller Mediacorp online newspaper beats ST on important stories nearly every day. Its editors push the boundaries, which ST is not prepared to do, and the quality of their copy shows.

The Straits Times has lost it

ST has become so predictable – and boring. When I pick up the paper every day, I read the headlines and skip the stories because I have read them the night before in other MSM outlets. No value add is given. Analysis of daily news events is the name of the game, but ST doesn’t seem to want to go there, as the government is against mixing news and analysis.

The paper does have nuggets hidden in its stories. You simply need the patience and stamina to dig through the verbiage to unearth them.

If I didn’t do that sort of mental gymnastics, I would not have realised that Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had said in his latest book, “Standing Tall”, that he was surprised and upset when he realised that the number of permanent residents had been growing steadily in the years before 2011, from 50,000 a year to almost 80,000 in 2008. This was a rare admission that the former PM does not agree with his successor on a policy that continues to divide the country.

SPH could have got into the digital game a long time ago. But the leadership - Alan Chan was CEO from 2003 to 2017 - dragged their feet for fear of cannibalising print. Now, SPH is paying the price for that.

ST and the government keep harping on about how its digital footprint is getting more visible. The problem is that the management has not found a way to monetise this. But all they need to do is look at how newspapers like The New York Times and a few others have done it. NYT has just announced an operating profit of US$51.7 million in the first three months of this year, nearly double that of the same period last year.

So why is ST, which has got most of the playing field to itself, not been able to follow in that paper’s footsteps? Big guns like Google and Facebook have seized a huge slice of the internet pie and SPH just doesn’t have the talent to dislodge these two digital giants.

Now, even if the government were ready to ease some of the curbs on media, I doubt if the current editors would know how to take advantage of the new-found freedom. Editors of the past like Peter Lim, Cheong Yip Seng and Leslie Fong believed in pushing the boundaries even when the late Lee Kuan Yew was at his rogue best. Some paid a heavy price for that.

I presume today’s editors want to protect their pay packets and so will always use defensive editing to move on in life. This is the tragedy of SPH Media as it tries to start a new life under a new company that will again be protected by the government.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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