The story of Singapore’s mainstream print media is really two stories. One is political – the management or control of public opinion in a new environment. The other is keeping it alive commercially in today’s new information world where print media is a sunset business.
Nothing is going to change for the first – so long as the ruling People’s Action Party refuses to allow space for alternative views from a growing number of wakened Singaporeans – and because of that, staying alive commercially is always going to be impossible: who wants to pay to read His Master’s Voice propaganda? Singapore Press Holdings’ plan to restructure its media arm into a not-for-profit entity amid falling revenue is just another desperate attempt to find a solution to a conundrum. At the same time, it could also be that of singing and selling a public song to camouflage two conflicting truths – poor management or the intended but unsaid dismantling of SPH’s still considerable assets when Ng Yat Chung was sent over to be CEO.
First, the political part.
The PAP’s attitude towards local press is well-known and well-documented. For Lee Kuan Yew, the press had no role in politics, much less be some kind of pillar of democracy or a fourth estate like in the West where the media played an active, often adversarial, check and balance role. The press here was simply a state tool to publicise and explain government policies. LKY’s dictum was: if you wanted to oppose policies, become a politician and make your stand as one, not from the sideline. Fight it out in the polls, and not muddy up the pages of newspapers. He was prepared to shut down any newspaper which believed or acted otherwise. The list of casualties included Nanyang Siang Pau and Singapore Herald. In the early years, LKY actually left The Straits Times alone, so long as it behaved itself. At that stage, the paper was in the hands of people who were not exactly enamoured of the PAP but were no rabble-rousers.
I would say LKY did not pay much attention during the busy post-independence era. If ST became a nuisance, he would just close it down and allow another one to replace it. We all know it was then Culture Minister S Rajaratnam who advised against such a move: why not take over and make use of it? As they say, the rest is history. Rajaratnam, who used to be a leader writer for the Singapore Standard, understood better the value of co-opting rather than destroying a running and viable instrument.
Political control was the easy part. Not satisfied with the periodic coffee break or lunch meetings to establish a lopsided (master/follower) bonhomie , the government obviously wanted to take over the newspaper operation. Step by step, scholars of every shade and size and bureaucrats from all kinds of ministries were planted in The Straits Times. The professional journalists, with years of proven and unquestionable experience, found themselves having to listen and report to these pseudo journalists. I must point out, however, some of these co-opted staffers did turn out to be good journalists and probably were persuaded to the cause of meaningful journalism. Some are still there. Good for them.
Also, just before the current set of senior editors (I mean those really at the top and not the whole caboodle of tan chiak careerists), there was a transition period. Older editors who rose from the ranks were still in charge. But not for long. They were fighting a losing battle against the final emergence of commissars and apparatchiks who would eventually take over editorial control.
At a later stage of the government’s increasing interest in SPH came the (voila!) discovery that the media conglomerate was rich. It also owned properties. SPH was a useful resource which, earlier, looked truly like a cash cow that could do no wrong commercially. One top civil servant after another, one ex-minister after another benefitted from the SPH’s sudden extra role as a grazing farm for retirees, complete with limousines, nice offices and God knows what other perks.
When it became clear as SPH profits began to dip, notwithstanding the group’s monopolistic advantage, that the print media business was a dying one, something had to be done.
But why was Ng Yat Chung made SPH’s CEO? Was he the right man to rescue the newspaper group in troubled times, since he came with a record of having steered NOL, the national shipping line, into the water? His explanation for his failure was that NOL did not have “the scale” to be a premium line while admitting that it was “a bit slow and reluctant to change”. French shipping line CMA CMG took over and eventually turned it around in 2017.
So why? It could be that Ng’s experience at NOL made him a good fit to understand the challenge of finding a new role for a company heading towards an uncertain period. If that was so, he might well be the best person to unlock and extract new value and to plan for that eventuality.
Was he brought there for that specific purpose, to plan for and oversee the breakup of SPH?
Does not really matter.
Call it what you may, CLG (company limited by guarantee), “meaningful journalism”, China porcelain bowl, SPH Media Holdings or whatever, the mainstream print media will continue to become less and less relevant.
I ask again: who wants to pay to read HMV state propaganda?
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing world.
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