Today we heard the news that Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is spinning off its media unit, including The Straits Times and many other publications, into a non-profit entity. This follows years of consistently poor performance amid digital disruption and other changes to the media industry.
Wiser minds will engage in more thorough post-mortems—has anybody seen Ho Ching’s feed today?—but I wanted to spark a small conversation on the culture of elite governance in Singapore.
“If not for the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), the loss would have been a deeper S$39.5 million,” Lee Boon Yang, SPH’s chairman, said in reference to the media business’s first-ever lost of S$11.4m, for the financial year which ended Aug 31 2020.
(Which includes management salaries. In case you missed it, since the JSS began in February 2020, the Singaporean taxpayer has helped pay even more for the upkeep of numerous millionaire elites.)
All this got me thinking. Why exactly is Lee Boon Yang the chairman of SPH?
Lee is a trained vet who entered politics in 1984 aged 37, and then entered the cabinet in 1991.
After leaving the cabinet in 2009, in the very same year he became chairman of the board of Keppel Corporation, where he is paid S$750,000 annually. Financially, I guess it was a nice cushion after having to give up his million-dollar ministership.
After leaving politics altogether in 2011, in the very same year he became chairman of the board of SPH, where he is paid S$216,000 annually. Financially, I guess it was a nice cushion after having to give up his (similar) politician’s pay.
It is not clear what qualifications Lee had to lead the board of a global conglomerate with offshore, marine and other interests, or the board of Singapore’s biggest media company. (Subservience?)
What we do know is that during his tenure both companies have performed poorly. Their stocks have tanked. Keppel has been ensnared in a massive corruption scandal while SPH is now on its knees seeking charity to salvage, among other things, one of Singapore’s fabled brands, The Straits Times, which was established in 1845. (Or one hundred and twenty years before Singapore became a fishing village.)
Yet it may seem harsh to focus only on a non-executive chairman, whose remit is limited. Far more damning is the composition of the entire SPH Board, which in turn is responsible for the choice of SPH’s CEO: Ng Yat Chung, a former chief of defence with zero prior experience in the media industry, was hired in 2017. (He’s the person caricatured by Sonny Liew above). The Board advises and helps the CEO on strategy and operations.
Let’s compare these Singaporean elites to the people who run a far more successful media brand. In 1843, just two years before The Straits Times was founded, the Brits who stayed at home established The Economist.
Disclosure: I am a (tiny) minority shareholder in TEG, which is privately held. After joining the firm in 2006, I first bought shares in 2007 under the Employee Share Ownership Plan, which I still hold (despite leaving the firm in 2013).
Chairman of the Board
SPH: Lee Boon Yang, S$216,000
TEG: Paul Deighton, S$206,500 (£118,000 x 1.75, a rough average for the year)
Total independent directors’ salaries
TEG: S$588,000 (£336,000)
SPH: Ng Yat Chung, S$1.79m
TEG: Chris Stibbs, S$1.49m (£852,000)
The Straits Times: Warren Fernandez, S$1m (estimate)*
The Economist: Zanny Minton Beddoes, S$796,000 (£455,000)
Think about the glaring skills gap.
Lee Boon Yang has little international experience, while Paul Deighton is a former Goldman Sachs executive who was later CEO of the London Olympics.
SPH’s independent directors list is like a scholars’ old boys club—and girls, including Janet Ang, SISTIC chairperson and new Nominated MP. TEG’s include the likes of John Elkann, CEO of Axor.
SPH’s CEO, Ng Yat Chung, has no prior experience in media and, by his own admission, is not even a gentleman. TEG’s CEO is Chris Stibbs, who was head of Group Finance when I joined in 2006, and worked his way up to the role, becoming CEO in 2013. (Lara Boro took over in Sep 2019.)
Finally, The Straits Times’s chief editor is somebody whose name is not known outside of Toa Payoh, while The Economist’s chief editor is the incredible Zanny Minton Beddoes, the first woman to hold the position.
Think about the skills gap, and then think again about the salaries.
Do appointments and salaries at SPH reflect merit and talent—or political allegiance?
Which other sectors are the elites slowly running into the ground?
Remember, Ho Ching and other elites love to lecture ordinary Singaporeans about improving ourselves to face global talent competition.
Well, let me ask the same question: is Lee Boon Yang the most talented person available to serve as chairman of Keppel and SPH? Does Ng Yat Chung have to face competition from the world’s best media moguls?
This whole SPH mess is symptomatic of one great problem with Singaporean business and politics today: overpaid elites with God complexes and too much to lose lording over underpaid, under appreciated underlings.
SPH’s chairman; the entire independent board; the CEO; and the editor-in-chief all earn markedly more than their peers at The Economist Group.
Let that sink in, dear reader.
Because soon they’ll be coming to you hat in hand.
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* Several years ago two separate sources told me that Warren Fernandez’s salary is over a million dollars. Hence I have used the very lowest bound, i.e. S$1m. If anybody has the actual figure, do share, and I will publish an update here.
Indeed, the very fact that SPH is so opaque with its remuneration—an issue across corporate Singapore—while TEG is so transparent is itself something to ponder.
SPH’s Corporate Governance page lists two “key management personnel” with seven figure salaries, without naming them.
This sentence made me laugh:
“The Board is of the view that, given the confidential and commercial sensitivities associated with remuneration matters and the highly competitive human resource environment in which the Company operates and the importance of ensuring stability and continuity of business operations with a competent and experienced management team in place, it is in the best interests of the Company to not disclose the names of the Company’s top five key management personnel (who are not Directors or the CEO).”
‘Highly competitive human resource environment’?
Give me a break lah. Zanny and The Economist operate in a highly competitive human resource environment. Warren and your other “editors” do not.
– How to fix things? Start by freeing the mainstream media of government control; and hiring proper journalists. So many editors at SPH and CNA are bureaucrats—not media people.
There are lots of good young journos at these outlets. They need more freedom and better mentors.
top image credit: Sonny Liew