Strange goings-on at SPH

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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SPH

The Straits Times headlined its main story on top-level changes in Singapore Press Holdings: “Incoming SPH CEO is no stranger to the company.”  The strapline went: “He joined board as independent director last year, was involved in firm’s growth plans and strategies.”

My humble reaction is: Wow, this person must be some kind of wunderkind, somewhat on par with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Uber’s Travis Kalanick. He must have come with an impressive record of success or is such a fast learner that he could grasp the complexities of running Singapore’s main media group (which now describes itself as also a property group) all in double quick time. One year of experience? What is his track record before that, anyway?

Ok, what are the facts? Remember, main media likes to say that facts are important, it prides itself as a guardian or purveyor of truth, unlike what it often derisively dismisses as the half-baked or skewed assertions in some elements of social media.

Basically, SPH’s new CEO Ng Yat Chung cut his teeth in mostly government or government-linked outfits. He is another army general helicoptered into the civilian establishment.  We have no way of assessing accurately his achievements in the military except to note that he was responsible for, according to Wikipedia, laying the blueprint for the 3rd Generation SAF by overseeing the development of new operational concepts to further integrate the Army, Navy and Air Force. Sounds impressive, good for him, no major quarrel here, I suppose.

He then spent some time as senior managing director for Temasek Holdings (2007-2011). Again, we have little idea what he actually did that was so spectacular. Did he double or triple the earnings of our reserves? If he did, we would be happy to know.

So up to that point, it has been all rather ill-defined. We don’t have enough facts and we don’t speculate on what he did or failed to do in the SAF and Temasek Holdings, to be fair.

But the record of the new SPH CEO in his previous karma as CEO of Neptune Orient Lines is public knowledge. The national shipping line practically sank under his leadership. (Here, as I said last week, Singapore Airlines is facing the same stark reality of a closing down if it does not get its act right fast as it too fights for survival). He may have put up a spin that NOL shareholders got a fair and reasonable price for the sale to CMA CGM (which did much better than him and just reported a first quarterly net profit $26 million for NOL since 2011). But the NOL episode is a black mark, however you look at it.

Ironically, it is precisely Ng’s unfortunate experience at NOL that may come in useful in his new role. Failure offers lessons for dealing with the realities of the corporate world, especially where everything is now so volatile, uncertain and fast-moving.

The flagship activity of SPH – the print medium newspaper industry – is a sunset industry world-wide, viewed against the growth of digital media, as consumer habits continue to evolve with new technologies.

WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers) estimates that about 2.7 billion people around the world read newspapers in print. Meanwhile, more than 1.3 billion, or about 40 per cent of global internet users, read newspapers online. Newspaper circulation world-wide simply inched from 600 million in 2011 to 700 million in 2015, whereas the circulation of paid digital publications exploded from just two  million in 2011 to more than 17 million in 2015.

SPH itself  in January reported a 43.8 per cent slide in first-quarter net profit, which came in at $45.7 million. Group operating revenue for the three months ending Nov 30 fell by 6 per cent over the same period a year earlier to $278.3 million. SPH said the slowing economy and ongoing disruption of the media industry continued to weigh on its media business, which saw a 9.5 per cent drop in revenue, largely owing to a 13.5 per cent fall in advertisement revenue.

Therefore, in a perverted manner, the person who has seen failure in an earlier sinking ship is being seen as the right one to rescue a new sinking conglomerate operating in a slow or no-growth business.  Are expectations high or low here? You tell me.

Stop the China love affair

Singaporeans have been told not to read too much into the current state of relations between us and China. Don’t worry, try and not to read too much into the absence of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Belt and Road forum in Beijing. The relations are deep, strong, wide and steady. If you say so, as many pundits will reply.

The truth is that Beijing does what it does, in its own interests. And we have to do what we do, in ours.

What we should perhaps need to do is stop pretending that our future lies  beyond where we are and what we have always been with others around the planet. We are in Southeast Asia – and that’s not quite in the Middle Kingdom’s long-term grand plan scenario. China is more interested in East Asia  –  South China Sea, the Korean peninsula and Japan –  and all the territories westwards  – through the Ukraine, the countries named “stans, the Middle East all the way to Europe and Africa.

Stop claiming special relationships with the Chinese and work harder on our relations with those who are around us and with those who have always been with us, traditionally and historically. The sooner we wake up, the better. We are Singapore, Southeast Asia. Start being Southeast Asian – and not Chinese or part of China.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.