Straits Times is given a lifeline, but it is not going to help

Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with Lee Kuan Yew in his private office at Istana, in Singapore, July 26, 2013. David Lienemann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With a 176-year storied history, cash oozing out of its every pore and high entry barriers imposed against insurgents, the Straits Times should be riding high and mighty. Instead, what we see is a wobbly newspaper that has entered the digital battleground a little too late, giving Google, Facebook and social media outfits an advantage in grabbing eyeballs from this once powerhouse of Singapore journalism.

The red ink drowning print media is happening in many parts of the world. But ST’s decline is unique as it had the financial muscle to fight back but was not prepared to bell the cat. The cat in this case is the Singapore government, which via legislation and other political maneuvers, tightened its vice-like grip on the newspaper to get it to play by the ruling political party’s rules.

The coup de grace came in the form of a vicious enemy called Covid-19 which battered the company that publishes ST and nine other newspapers, with its media business falling into the red for the first time in recent times. For the first six months ending February 2021, its pre-tax loss was S$9.7 million. The result is a spin-off of the media unit into a not-for-profit organisation with the parent company, Singapore Press Holdings, giving it S$80 million in cash, S$30 million worth of SPH shares and Reit units, and surrendering its stake in four digital media investments. All this will go into a new company that will be set up once shareholders give the go-ahead.

That subsidiary will become a company limited by guarantee which will allow it to get money from public and private sources. Guess what? The government will again play a major part. The first clear sign of the government hand came when the announcement was made in early May. Former senior minister, Khaw Boon Wan, will be its chairman.

The media plot has not changed since Lee Kuan Yew came to power in 1959. That election saw ST (surprise, surprise) campaign against him and his party. After his party won the election, ST and its key management staff and editors ran to Kuala Lumpur to produce the paper from the Malaysian capital. A few years later, they came back to Singapore. That marked the beginning of the end of ST’s independence.

The noose was tightened when the press law was passed in 1974, a unique legislation where ordinary shareholders of a newspaper cannot hold more than 5 percent of its shares and those who hold management shares have 200 times the voting power on resolutions relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director or any staff member. Not to mention that the management shareholders were those who saw in the business-friendly Singapore government a proxy for their profitability.

For a government obsessed with media control, laws alone were not enough. SPH’s chairman is a former senior government minister, its current CEO is a former three-star general who led the Singapore Armed Forces, while the previous chief executive was moved from the civil service to SPH. And as though those appointments are not enough, the government goes to great lengths to engage journalists in closed-door discussions to convince them to accept the government’s point of view. From Prime Minister downwards, the government meets journalists regularly. And since I had been part of these sessions, I can tell you their arguments can be very persuasive. They have the information at their fingertips and they know who wields the power in an uneven contest.

ST is a very important tool for the politicians. Lee Kuan Yew realised that early on. When the management and editors fled to KL in 1959 and returned to Singapore later, Lee knew that money was the primary motive behind that move. He made sure that as long as the paper could make money, its support for the ruling party was assured. He was proven right once again when he decided to crack down on the foreign press that didn’t publish his government’s replies in full. He hit them where it hurt the most by blacking out the ads in those publications circulating in Singapore.

Soon, they were dancing to his tune with even the publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham, trying to make peace. In the case of ST, it was to make sure the paper had a free reign in the marketplace and make them understand that with ruling party in power, the economy would grow which meant the paper would prosper. And the paper’s backing for his party will continue to be there. That was a LKY genius.

Now ST faces one of its biggest challenges with the big digital players swallowing up the eyeballs and its print business being forced into ICU. The company was slow and hesitant as it let go of a great opportunity to entrench itself in the digital business.  Alan Chan, the former CEO of SPH, let the opportunity slip when he continued to push the print business and failed to adequately push digital at a time when others in the industry were capitalizing on it. He was moved from civil service to SPH in 2002 and stayed for 15 years, allowing Facebook and Google to secure a firm beachhead. That started the decline of ST and the ongoing restructure is a last-gasp measure to eke out an existence for itself.

It is unlikely the government will let ST find its own path to survival. That will be a double-edged weapon; on the one hand, it will be able to get the private sector and semi-private sector firms to pump money into the yet-to-formed company. If that money is not enough, the government has already pledged to sink in more. On the other hand, government control will mean a dull newspaper which readers will continue to desert.

The government’s interventionist role in media has killed newsroom innovation and enterprise. The journalists are so cowed by government rules, both imagined and unimagined, that the paper has become dull and stodgy. There is no exuberance in the writing, it lacks intelligent analysis and  commentaries and is always in catch-up mode, allowing social media to push the agenda.

Some of its best editors and supervisors have left after the replacement of the paper’s editor,  Han Fook Kwang, after the 2011 election, when the ruling party’s majority slipped to a historic low of 60.1 per cent. ST election coverage was one of the fairest, with the Opposition Workers’ Party getting a juicy bite of the cherry.

The new editing team knows what it means to report, write and edit differently. They will stagnate in their positions or will have to pack up their laptops and leave. The choice is clear: the government relaxes its controls or the editors engage the politicians on what it means if they don’t change. 

Editor’s note: Alan Chan moved to SPH in 2002. The column has been updated to reflect the correct year.