The elites have run The Straits Times into the ground. What’s next?

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.

I decided to do a quick-and-dirty comparison of board and senior executive pay between SPH/The Straits Times and The Economist Group (TEG). I’ve chosen 2019 to reflect pre-pandemic levels. 

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

SPH: S$1.11m

TEG: S$588,000 (£336,000)

CEO

SPH: Ng Yat Chung, S$1.79m

TEG: Chris Stibbs, S$1.49m (£852,000)

Editor-in-chief

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

35 thoughts on “The elites have run The Straits Times into the ground. What’s next?

  1. Has Lee actually seen the elephant? Calling him a vet is a already over complementing him!

  2. SPH is a good example of GLC that did not have talented people who knew how to make money with such a monopolistic media company. As other GLCs fall, Singapore will have to start all over again running businesses as businesses that padding them up with highly paid non-funcionaries.

    1. The government has the habit of putting army generals into statutory boards and government link enterprises as CEOs.
      We as members of the public could not understand why these military people who has zero business experience becoming CEOs.
      The only conclusion we surmise is because they are more subservient to their masters (government).

      1. Could it be that should an opposition wins an election Singapore may emulate Myanmar?

  3. The GLC in Singapore do not need personnel with specific industry experiences to run the firm. The only key skill sets require, especially the top management in the job description is = Be a “Yes Man”.

  4. This has been going on since GCT era n gotten worse with LHL
    To expect a different mentality from 4G leaders is rather naive n wishful thinking
    As it stands 3G leaders if present day had never had a hard days work. They are just as most in
    China are ‘Fu earl tai’
    Overrated, overpaid under qualified with no street smart practical training
    All those degrees n diplomas are only good for wall coverings

  5. interesting that you didnt manage to share the true reality of the media industry and the shrinking readership, profits and advertising margins and solely focused on inidividuals within a large organisation. Regardless of the these compensation, it is a strategic organsational move for the survival of SPH as a media source. Complaining about drawn salary is pointless as it is a small factor to the overall picture of the media industry globally.

    1. A big picture discussion of the global media industry? Well, that was a bit difficult in the couple of hours I had. I’m sure that will one day come. I talk a bit about these forces in a recent podcast (Brave Dynamics) as well as in my other writing on The Straits Times and free speech/POFMA.

  6. I thorough love this one. At this rate, The Little Red Dot will soon be the Big Grey Heap of South East Asia. The Plot Thickens and The Rot Quicken. Habis Lah Singpura

  7. Very well written and argued. Your comments are hard to refute. Why is Lee Boon Yang chairman of SPH? What experience or capability does he bring especially in a disruptive phase where innovation and technology is bringing fierce new competitors and turning the business model upside down. Even as non executive chairman he has to be acutely aware of the environment and savvy enough to brainstorm with the board or know enough to conclude that the CEO is not up to the challenge.

    Which brings me to Ng Yat Chung. He obviously lacks the talent to navigate this ship in any weather but his compensation is on par with the best of his peers. His salary must be justified by turning around the business and not by spinning off loss making areas. But how did the board come to conclude that he had the experience and skills for the challenge before appointing him?

    Finally Warren, I am sure he writes better than most Singaporeans. I subscribe to Bloomberg, NYT, Economist….by international standards his writing is boring and does not provoke strong sentiments. It is hard to justify why his salary should be higher than journalists with international name recognition and are deep thinkers and have a wide following all over the world and not just in Toa Payoh.

  8. Sudhir, your whys and how come can only be answered when the opposition wins 45 seats.
    That will starts the ball rolling!!!
    Meanwhile, don’t give up.

  9. About 10 years ago I was part of a bid team for a consulting project with Singapore Exchange. The question they wanted answering was why was the retail market for Singapore stocks so lack-lustre. Although the company I was working for was not awarded the project, the answer was immediately obvious (as has been set out by this article) and did not require a consultant to explore it. The management of the Temasek-linked entities are unqualified. The ‘rising tide’ stockmarket of the 80s and early 90s enabled the PAP to reward loyal officers with a millionaire salary and a status symbol CEO role. Plus it enabled the PAP to stay in charge of business (rather than business running government which was what happened in HK). Rising revenues would be assured by rising populations and the economic growth of the surrounding countries.

  10. Over here in SG we don’t know who Zanny Minton Beddoes is, or read The Economist much. Like the Financial Times it tends to be just an accessory clenched under the armpits of bankers / fund managers to look credible in their jobs. In 2019 Mark Thomson CEO New York Times was paid USD 6.13m and doesn’t double hat as a property holdings executive. Doesn’t take much to uncover other higher paid newspaper media execs out there (naturally there are lower paid ones). Don’t get me wrong, Ng is no gentleman or businessman. But I get the feeling you’ll have a bone to pick with every GLC top dog and the incumbent government. Well that’s how they cari makan and this is how you cari makan, so ya sudah lah.

  11. Straits Times quite literally posted the best year by average daily circulation in decades.

  12. I nearly didn’t bother to read yr piece because the title seemed to imply that it was the kind of stuff fa certain segment of plebs would write. Fortunately I had more faith in yr writing. U should retitle it to reflect that u ain’t a pleb. LOL.
    News WWC has a better title I see.

  13. A lot of military big guns, without business experiences, sent to manage GLC companies , earning huge salaries and collecting fat bonuses have failed in their tasks miserably.

  14. for writers, editors, and other assorted pedants: on the use of the word “subservience” and the responsibilities of board members.

    Two people have in recent days expressed concern about this paragraph from a recent piece on Singapore Press Holdings:

    “It is not clear what qualifications Lee [Boon Yang] 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?)”

    They took issue with my use of the word “subservience” and one suggested that it might put me “in the cross hairs of people tasked to find fault to trip you up”.

    Let me leave you firstly with my own response to above person, and in the comments below some additional thoughts from a friend who works in corporate governance.

    “Are board directors independent? Or are they subservient to other interests, like founders, major shareholders (to the detriment of minor), political interests, corporate lobbies, etc.?

    (Technically, one could argue that board members are by definition subservient—to ALL shareholders. So perhaps a more exact formulation is: is Lee Boon Yang subservient to other interests to the detriment of ALL shareholders?)

    This is a question journalists can and must ask of board directors around the world, from Facebook and WeWork to Norfund, the sovereign wealth fund of Norway.

    Why is it wrong to ask the same question of board directors in Singapore? Indeed, the Singapore courts are full of cases concerning directors who have prioritised other interests above the company’s/shareholders’.

    Lee Boon Yang will go down in history as the chairman of the board who oversaw the utter destruction of shareholder value at two of Singapore Inc’s most famous brands.

    To answer your question about putting me in their cross-hairs, well yes, I’m sure. Elites around the world will do all they can to stop journalists asking hard questions at moments of perceived vulnerability.

    In most rich democracies, they do this by controlling “access”: only nice journalists are allowed to meet the boss. (In more unsavoury places, journalists often meet more unsavoury fates.)

    However, that should not stop me. I consider it not only my right, but more than that, my responsibility to ask such questions.”

    Many Singaporeans have been gaslit into thinking that raising the question of subservience is unacceptable. How is this done? Partly by elites shouting down at you: “How dare you ask that question?”

    We need to stop this unhealthy elite reverence. People in their position deserve scrutiny (even without accounting for their obscene taxpayer-funded salaries).

    Finally, the great irony of all this: if SPH journalists had been asking tough questions of our elites all these years, perhaps their publications might have thrived.

    from a friend who works in Corporate Governance:
    The word that we use more often in when it comes to directors is that they are “accountable” to ALL shareholders. The tricky part is that different shareholders have different interests, and as fiduciaries, the board needs to consider those when weighing decisions, along with what they think is best for the company.

    Which is why independence is important. The issue here is that while many of the directors here are considered independent strictly by definition, whether they truly are is a subject for debate. There’s this concept of the “invisible hand” and I think this is what we’re seeing here.

    So yes, your point questioning independence is a good one. Whose interests are the directors (and by extension the board) truly representing? Given SPH’s performance over the years, logically the shareholders would have called the board and management out, especially the Chair and the CEO.

    What probably makes this more interesting is the fact that many of these appointments don’t appear to be independently done. At the very best it still fails the optics test.

    So there definitely a case to be made questioning the basis of such decisions. Especially from the shareholder’s perspective.

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  16. Sorry to say this but as an article this is not a great one. I think this article is avoids completely the question of business part of the decision which I believe is a driving factor. Someone who has a decent idea of the media/advertising business and finance, I see it as quite an astute decision.

    Reason 1:

    SPH cannot compete with Google or Facebook even with better management or investments or hiring global leaders. It is just not going to happen, basic idea comes from the instance that SPH needs to create content so needs to be pay for content (employees) which the social media companies or Google doesn’t need to deal with and they can use network effects to scale and are not constrained by borders at all. So, there is very limited opportunity for SPH Media to become a seriously profitable business that is gonna drive significant shareholder value

    Reason 2:

    SPH is a publicly traded company with a decent amount of real estate holdings, the last time I looked at their financial statements, I believe that side of the business is profitable (this might have changed since then, not sure). So from a shareholder point of view the real estate business which is profitable might be either subsidizing the media business or the real estate business is not being properly valued in the market due to a loss making media business that is carrying so an option is to spin off the real estate division as a separate business.

    Outcome:

    So what options are left:
    a) Have SPH Media as a separate publicly traded company: Sure but who in their right mind would be shareholder for a traditional media company so by spinning off the real estate part of it might actually kill off SPH media business in terms of market.
    b) Sell SPH Media business: Who would buy it? Only companies that come to mind would be Vulture PEs who would restructure the shit of it probably fire 50-60% of staff and have a completely different company in 2-3 years maybe even no StratsTimes. I am not sure that is a good thing for anyone; Singapore or SPH or its employees.
    c) Dissolve the company: I think that is a terrible idea, most reasons are above.
    d) Make it into a non-profit: Journalism provides a public good which cannot be denied. The quality of journalism is not really in question here but as the primary vehicle for print and digital journalism in Singapore, SPH needs to exists. So either it is status quo and wait for inevitable or else let’s actually make the best decision possible and look at the continued sustainability of journalistic output from SPH and its media.

    I am not saying I am an expert but I have decent understanding of these elements and from cursory view as I have explained, it sounds to me like a solid decision. I think the article is myopic in its analysis. It felt very agenda-driven rather than issue drive, i am sorry to say.

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