SINGAPORE: Former Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) CEO Ng Yat Chung has been accused of appearing to distance himself from the circulation inflation scandal that has rocked the company in the days after it filed a police report over potential offences uncovered in internal investigations.
The company pledged full cooperation with the police earlier this week following a probe by its audit and risk committee investigating the inflated figures.
While the police have received an unredacted copy of the 14-page report, the SPH committee produced a redacted version of the report that is available on SPH’s website, revealing that the malfeasance within the leading media company was far more widespread and disturbing than some have thought.
The report, covering September 2020 to March 2022, implicated several departments and individuals within SPH and uncovered a systematic scheme involving misappropriating funds and manipulating circulation numbers to boost revenue.
One of the key revelations is the existence of a charity fund within SPH, initially intended to purchase papers for donation to charitable causes. However, since 2013, the fund has been exploited to buy papers or subscriptions, artificially inflating circulation figures.
The report did not specify when this practice began, but it implicated the circulation department and indicated that certain individuals approved these purchases, although their names were redacted.
Another concerning discovery pertains to SPH’s subscription deal with schools. When schools reduced their required subscriptions, undisclosed individuals instructed the circulation team to continue printing pre-reduced numbers. To offset the revenue shortfall, the charity fund was again utilized.
Additionally, even when schools requested the removal of print copies, the circulation department continued printing them, only to send the excess copies to an SPH warehouse for disposal, in a process internally referred to as “Avatar.”
Approval for this practice was granted by an individual whose name was redacted, and it suggested that another senior person within SPH was aware of these actions.
The audit report also shed light on suspicious barter deals with external entities. One such deal involving an entity called “X” raised red flags due to questionable intentions and an apparent lack of genuine transactional activity.
In this arrangement, SPH exchanged copies with X for distribution purposes, but despite the barter, SPH ended up paying an administrative fee to X. Furthermore, there were discrepancies in this deal compared to prior contracts, which staff members could not explain adequately.
Strikingly, SPH never distributed any materials from X, despite the barter agreement.
Similarly, SPH’s deal with another entity, identified as “Y,” showed that even after SPH stopped printing for this deal, they continued to report circulation figures associated with it. Y was requested to pay a nominal fee to maintain the appearance of circulation, although it remains unclear if Y was aware of the intent behind this nominal fee arrangement.
The report also highlighted discrepancies in reporting related to digital distribution and print+digital subscriptions. SPH announced a fixed number of distributions from airline copies, exceeding actual user downloads. The methodology behind this fixed number and whether management was aware of the discrepancy remains undisclosed.
Furthermore, digital copies sold to agencies were double-counted due to limitations in the CRSM system, but it is unknown whether management was aware of this issue or made any efforts to rectify it.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the report indicated that certain individuals in senior management were aware of and involved in the circulation inflation practices, although their identities were redacted.
The revelations have put former chief executive Ng Yat Chung back in the eye of the public. Although he stepped down from his post last May, after SPH was delisted from the Singapore Exchange in May, the entire period that the audit committee reviewed occurred when Mr Ng was at the helm.
When asked for comment after the report was published, Mr Ng told Business Times: “I note with regret and disappointment that certain individuals in the SPH Media circulation department appeared to have misconducted themselves in relation to circulation numbers during the period of review by the (audit and risk committee).”
The ex-Chief of Defence Force added, “The report also noted that neither the board nor senior management during the relevant period was aware of the alleged misconduct. I wish SPH Media Trust every success going forward.”
Some figures have dubbed his response an attempt to distance himself from the wrongdoing during his leadership. Senior lawyer Stefanie Yuen Thio said on LinkedIn: “I was surprised at this blatant attempt to distance himself from the wrongdoing while he was CEO.”
Noted socio-political commentator Andrew Loh agreed with this assessment and said on Facebook: “Remember: the audit report found that a member of “senior management” “was involved in this” scandal. We do not know who this person is. Apparently General Umbrage had no idea his own “senior management” staff was involved in it?”
Mr Ng’s last role before he joined SPH in 2017 was as Group President and CEO of Neptune Orient Lines (2011–2017). After just five years of running the former national shipping line, Temasek announced that it would tender its NOL shares to CMA in June 2016.
Mr Ng cited NOL’s lack of scale as the primary reason for its sale but he subsequently received criticism for his failure to improve the company’s performance over his years as CEO, especially after it was reported that French conglomerate CMA managed to turn NOL around, with NOL posting a $26 million net profit for Q1 2017, in just a few months.