The idea that the state-run media in the form of the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) requires reform is not surprising.
With the advent of social media and dramatic changes in the way people are consuming news in the past decade, the current model in which the SPH operates is not tenable.
Indeed, this is something that SPH CEO Ng Yat Chung (Mr Ng) alluded to at SPH’s annual general meeting on 27 Nov 2020 when he told shareholders that SPH would move forward by growing income from its property business.
“SPH is facing a challenging media landscape. We have not been spared from rapid changes disrupting the news media industry everywhere. Consumer habits are changing, and they are increasingly moving to digital media.”
Given the warning signs, is this restructure that much of a surprise?
However, that said, it is not the restructure that is a surprise, but rather, how it is done and the fashion in which Mr Ng behaved at the press conference announcing the restructure that has raised eyebrows.
For those unaware, SPH said in a statement on Thursday (6 May) that it will be transferring its media business to a non-profit entity in the wake of declining revenue from advertising.
This restructuring exercise will entail transferring the entire media-related businesses of SPH including relevant subsidiaries, relevant employees, News Centre and Print Centre along with their respective leaseholds, as well as all related intellectual property and information technology assets to a newly incorporated wholly-owned subsidiary, SPH Media Holdings Pte Ltd.
SPH will provide the initial resources and funding by capitalising SPH Media with a cash injection of S$80 million, S$30 million worth of SPH shares and SPH REIT units, as well as SPH’s stakes in four of its digital media investments. The transfer will take place at a nominal sum. The not-for-profit entity will be a newly formed public company limited by guarantee CLG. SPH said that it will release more information about the CLG in due course.
Many questions arise as a result of this arrangement and details are still sketchy at the moment. Most presciently, is the issue of funding. While SPH will initially fund the process. Where will future funds come from?
It is likely at this point, that the state will contribute some funds in future which in turn means that it will come from taxpayers. However, do taxpayers want to pay for news that many have commented is a mouthpiece of the ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP)?
Singapore regularly features near the bottom of the press freedom index, dropping a further 2 spaces this year to number 160, keeping company with military dictatorships and rogue governments. A clear indication that contrary to what Mr Ng has said, SPH has not done a great job in bringing news to the public.
Will this be an issue that will be debated in Parliament in due course?
Amid these questions, Mr Ng has given a stellar performance in what it means to throw one’s toys out of the pram when things don’t go his way.
When asked if SPH’s editorial discretion will be influenced by funding sources Mr Ng reacted badly, declaring that he took “umbrage” to the question, going so far even as to behave like a pseudo thug, declaring that he was not a “gentleman”.
In a diatribe that was at best defensive and at worst, illogical, Mr Ng did not answer the question beyond insisting that SPH had always provided good quality journalism.
However, in any change to the structure of a company, is this not a very fair and objective question to ask? Much less, to a company that is tasked with bringing news to the nation?
Mr Ng’s childish display is therefore not only unprofessional but more concerning, raises questions as to whether or not SPH has ever had to answer proper public questions in the first place? For a leader in the national media to be unable to withstand valid questions is extremely concerning.
Besides, this is not even a difficult or unexpected question?
If Mr Ng is unable to withstand a very reasonable question such as this, I really wonder how he got to the top job in the first place? This display showcases an utter inability to take any form of pressure.
It also makes me wonder whether he is defensive precisely because the question had hit the nail on the head in the first place.
Netizens have obviously picked up on Mr Ng’s bad behaviour, questioning (on the YouTube video) his inability to answer questions calmly. Some have also raised the issue of funding.
Some have also sarcastically commented on the seeming inability of Mr Ng to see the irony of his behaviour in light of the question.
At the end of the day, SPH has always been criticised as a media outlet that favours the ruling PAP. To be questioned about their journalistic objectivity is therefore a long-delayed question and one that is par for the course.
Is Mr Ng reacting badly because he is defensive because as the saying goes “guilty conscience”?