Without corporate discipline, competent leadership and firmer ‘hire & fire’ policy, our economic future as a nation will be compromised

Ng Yat Chung

SPH has just reported a 25.7% drop in 2Q19 earnings to S$29.7 million, with a 5.2% decline in revenue. It cited higher costs as its core print advertisement revenue decline further, while its operating income dropped by 31.6% to just S$4.5million.

I was surprised that its CEO, Ng Yat Chun, was quick to point out how diversified SPH has become and the drop from advertising revenue is of no real concern.

SPH, owner of our national broadsheet and 50 over publications, has unrivalled advantages operating in Singapore all these years. While it is true that digitalization and online news portal are eroding away its profit, it is equally true that SPH has to blame itself when its news, which are its end products, are becoming more like the newsletters of the government rather than an engaging-platform, where people will want to go to for factual, investigative and comprehensive reporting.

While it may be investor-friendly to be reporting that two-thirds of its profits are now coming from property instead of its core business, these property investments were largely attributed to its UK student accommodation and elderly care in Singapore, where it owns the Orange Valley Healthcare. Under Ng, it has also recently acquired the Figtree Grove Shopping Centre in Australia.

During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, our government stepped in and rescued several of our titans from collapsing with public funds. It directed our GLCs and related entities to divest away non-core businesses and to streamline their operations so that they can focus on their core business as part of the rescue package. Smaller banks were forced to merge while new entities like CapitaLand were formed to take over the portfolio of DBS Land and those of Pidemco Land. It was logical and there was no real public outcry.

Why is SPH, like many of our GLCs, are now allowed to return to diversifying beyond their core businesses? In the case of SPH, their diversification looks random at best, totally out of sync with its core business, brand name and may even put its journalists and publications at risks of conflict of interest. Should they encounter another financial crisis, will our government be coming to their rescue again?

Ethically, can our government even consider rescuing them since they are going against our government’s earlier advice – to stay focus on their core businesses? Are they even being led by competent corporate leaders? Have we forgotten about the essence of this hard lesson of 1997?

Ng was formerly the Chief of Defence Force in the SAF before he retired in 2007 and held the rank of Lieutenant-General. He then joined Temasek for four years before being appointed as the Group President and CEO of NOL in 2011. Personally, I have no issue with him as a person or as an ex-soldier.

As we know, NOL suffered massive losses. In February 2015, its prized-asset, APL Logistics was sold to Kintetsu World Express for US$1.2billion. As the bleeding continues, NOL was finally fully divested in June 2016 to the French group, CMA CGM, for US$3.38billion and was delisted from our stock exchange in September 2016. There was a public outcry as NOL was seen as a national icon of our prized shipping industry.

The Straits Times reported in an article on June 2016 where Ng stated that “we have made good progress in that aspect, and every year we’re managed to reduce our losses. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to cut costs fast enough to offset the collapse in freight rates”. He even cited candidly that “in this environment of extreme overcapacity and severe freight rate erosion, competition is based on cost” to justify the divestment of NOL.

In a nutshell, in the professional view of Ng, NOL was as good as a gone case and in that article, it seems that he was also giving himself some credits for reducing its losses. Many questions were asked as to why Ng was appointed and whether he was even qualified to be heading NOL in the first place.

Miraculously, BT reported on May 2017 that the new French owner managed to turn NOL around in just under a year of its acquisition, reporting a profit of US$86million against a loss of US$105million in the same period of 2016. There was a second massive public outcry and more questioning. As we know, Ng subsequently joined SPH on September 2017.

Now that SPH is again facing a challenging business environment, some Singaporeans like me are getting concern if SPH will end up like NOL as Ng has no experience in the media industry, just like he has no experience in the shipping industry when he headed NOL. Some Singaporeans even questioned why he was not fired for his failings at NOL but was seen to be promoted instead. As usual, many of such questions will never be answered by our ministers for reason unknown.

As a national broadsheet, its core revenue is derived largely from government grants and spending, advertising revenue and concessions. Like any MSMs, today readers are spoilt for choice and institutional news, like government newsletters, are a big turn-off for the new generation of readers. There are many competing news sites and the quality of their reporting simply outgunned that of SPH’s news platforms. Being the mouth-piece of the government, some readers naturally viewed its reporting with scepticism.

SPH needs a competent leader who knows the delicate balance of journalism, both as an art form and as a discipline, to nurture its pool of journalistic talents, and appreciate its editors sufficiently to empower them, and not curtail them from pursuing Hard Truths. In its totality, it must be engaging and be the platform to go to for any informative, investigative and comprehensive news. Need more proof – will any journalist in its own stable of publications be writing article like this and question it’s CEO? Truth hurts and in the case of SPH, will it ever learn and accept the fact that it is no longer relevant in today’s world of journalism?

Instead of innovating to entice and engage the changing demographics of reader, why is SPH allowed to take an easy way out of its core challenges? If corporate discipline is to be ignored, why not then issue SPH with a Capital Market licence and allow it to structure bonds and derivatives? Its 50 over publications can be roped in lucratively to help flush out much more glossier analysts’ report while its broadsheets in the various languages can reinforce their “buy” recommendations without consequences. Is our government allowing or encouraging our GLCs to act without corporate discipline?

With so many of these generals helming our businesses and operations in both the private and public sectors, there is a need to be asking how qualified are these ex-generals as many of them have polished CVs but no real world experience. There are already many blunders attributed to them, from NOL to SMRT. What is troubling is that most of them are being “manufactured” and fast-tracked for political careers with the PAP instead of being discarded upon their expiry from the SAF.

If true, this begets the question – is the PAP struggling to recruit real talents with real world experience to renew itself? What real values can these ex-soldiers offer – to the country, our businesses, investments and our economy, and the well-being of Singaporeans? Are we witnessing the making of another Hard Truth?

It is so obvious that we have just too many ex-generals who are being fast-tracked into our private and public sectors and we know most of them will be further fast-tracked into parliament via the backdoor of GRCs. Is this the new direction as to how PAP renews itself and is such calibre reflective of PAP’s political leadership renewal – as in how PAP will be governing our country, directing our public, private sectors and protecting our investments and reserve?

Some Singaporeans are already struggling to come to term with the endless arrogance and stupidities of the PAP’s current 4G political leaders. If these are indications of what is to come in the foreseeable future, I am afraid that these “Toy Soldiers” may just bring our country to its knee. When that day comes, we cannot divest away Singapore like how we had divested NOL but would have to start cleaning up their mess and rebuilding our country from scratch.

I would shudder when I think about hoping for any of the foreign investors or talents to be around as they would be long gone from our shore. I don’t think we will be bothered about our CPF or the value of our HDB Flat as by then, they will be meaningless. I reckoned that even our millionaire-ministers will be long gone as we can no longer afford them.

My concerns may sound like a page from the novels of 1884 or A Brave New World. But once our financial reserve and comparative advantages have been severely eroded or compromised, the Hard Truth is that it may just become a reality. In an era of great global uncertainty, things can go terribly wrong very quickly. The recent Hyflux saga is just another timely reminder.

In the case of Singapore where our government has not been actively creating real economic values to sustain our First World economy diligently these past years, we are also at risks of experiencing the “Lost Decades” syndrome that Japan has been experiencing over the past 20 over years. Everything that we had created or worked for over the past 50 over years will be deflated, slowly but surely.

I am concern as I seriously think Singapore deserves better.


Joseph Nathan



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19 Responses to “Without corporate discipline, competent leadership and firmer ‘hire & fire’ policy, our economic future as a nation will be compromised”

  • Bapak:

    We welcome him there in SPH. The earlier he demises SPH the better. Next, send him to PAP, let him continue his “massacre”.

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  • Handicapped Self-Entitlement:

    The academic scholarship guys have been on the fast track choo choo train their entire lives – chasing for the next stop all the time – that their cognizance and vicarious experience of the surrounding cultural collage is but stunted: they’ve missed the grassroot pulse of the ordinary people in our day to day lives; and working at the base of any organization for that matter – not parachuted into the top as they often are.

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  • never voted pap:

    the paper general who ran mrt any good? the pap Lj pocketed S$10m+ in a short 5+ years and during his tenure not only mrt got worse it also caused deaths.

    the paper general who ran NOL any good? the pap Lj sank NOL. and is now on his 2nd bite of 70% sheep cherry. as the article above points out, being the political mouthpiece of pap, MOUTHPIECE, means M1 is also ok?

    just like gic temasick pap PA. these are supposed to exist for citizens since they are all from citizens’ CPF. yet they are treated like private assets of lee family, with the lee clown chairman of gic pap PA and lee clown wife heading temasick. WHY?

    so that nobody can question how come the useless lim boon heng can so cosy S$m position and the useless paper generals can so cosy S$m company killing positions and the loyal yes men yes women with nowhere to go so cosy S$m no need to account for performance positions.

    since pap clown and wife and lim boon heng and paper generals and all the yes men yes women are ffffing no good, gic temasick pap PA not only needed 70% sheep to pay GST they now need them to pay more and more. WTF.

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  • Best CEO:

    We need him to sink SPH quickly, the evil propaganda machinery of greedy PAP.

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  • paleface:

    Send him to SIA to complete the cycle of Land, Sea and Air.

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  • UniQ:

    Leading a Monopoly and still cannot make it, speaks tons of him.

    Its a Mockery on an international stage and if he has the skin to even draw his pay cheque at the end of each month ?

    The silence is deafening.

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  • Good news PAP's jewel:

    Once again good news for 70% Population. More losses is good and more SAF idiots also good for the country. BTW nothing new about this. This loss is nothing compared to Temasek or GIC! small money no problem.

    GD Star Rating
  • NotMyProblem:

    @Joseph; With the introduction of “Fake News” laws, there may be hope for SPH. That’s the reason why CEO Ng supported this laws. Medias from SPH is 100% none Fake News. All the other “Fake News” medias will be closed soon.

    SPH will definitely “.. becoming more like the newsletters of the government rather than an engaging-platform, where people will want to go to for factual, investigative and comprehensive reporting.”

    PAP’s “fake news” law will help SPH.

    GD Star Rating
  • oxygen:

    ONLY A 5.2% FALL IN REVENUE left such a massive dent in earnings – UNBELIEVABLE. They can’t afford to see any more revenue decline. It is evident that the diversification efforts have failed or at least not driving their earning base faster than the decline in core business. BUT FUNDS ARE ALREADY COMMITTED, how to turn the clock backward.

    Other than its core business of publishing, its other pillar is property-based. Low yield business sector as it is also capital intensive but low value-added.

    The desperation will come when its core business bleeds in the red and this may not be too far away as only a small decline in revenue is dripping such a big bloodletting.

    IN A CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT OF REGULATED POLITICAL-DRIVEN AND BOUNDED IRRATIONALITY of empty journalistic freedom, THERE WON’T BE ANY BIDDER for a possible takeover of this “funeral” stock just waiting for the final demographic (ah Kong & Ah Mah readership only) digital burial.

    :SPH has just reported a 25.7% drop in 2Q19 earnings to S$29.7 million, with a 5.2% decline in revenue. It cited higher costs as its core print advertisement revenue decline further, while its operating income dropped by 31.6% to just S$4.5million.

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  • Harder Truths:

    Please SPH do not cease your Shit Times harcopies. I still need the Saturday edition for collection of doggie poo during the week.

    Thanking you in advance.

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  • Failed again:

    The same guy (ex SAF) who failed at NOL. Now at SPH. Military intelligence is an oxymoron. So many of them are in Cabinet including PM. No wonder Singaporeans are having a hard life.

    GD Star Rating
  • Propaganda Free News:

    News should be Free.
    State controlled media is a organ of the pro.State.

    This means, news and garment info the garment wants you to know, including Propaganda, need to use this channels to do the job.

    The media needs the readers more than the other way round given that social media already provide much of the news to keep us informed.

    So, my point is simple, state media should be made FREE.

    We should even be PAID to just it’s news.
    Remember without readers the state cannot operate it’s info dissemination.

    Already, internet has cut ass pee H revenue consistently over the decade.
    It’s a matter of trust.
    Why PAY for propaganda?
    You do so if you are bloody fool.

    GD Star Rating
  • MarBowling:

    Better still dispatch him to North Korea for understudy to learn how to shoot elephants and STRAIGHT! Kim Jong-un May do us a favor by finishing him off by put him up a mountain and firing him with a rocket launcher!

    GD Star Rating
  • Opposition dude:

    SPH can never reverse the decline of its print media because people today have far less free time to read the newspaper compared to the 80s and 90s.

    With overtime, looking after your children, videogames, drama viewing where got time to read newspaper tio bo? So of course people would not want to waste money buying it daily and which is also why PAP has to give you the news for free at the MRT daily. You can’t force people to buy your newspaper mah.

    So SPH’s print publications will continue to lose money and will probably be spun off into another company taken private just like SMRT focusing on printing only. The property sector will be the only one making money for them.

    And as for Ng, there is no need to even say he is incompetent since everyone knows he sunk NOL and can’t get a job which isn’t in a GLC. Just waiting for the inevitable to come for the print division, it’s just a matter of time.

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  • Dont jump the gun:

    To be fair , newspaper free to read at CC and library. Libraries with its free hard copies plus soft copies, it will affects their revenue.

    GD Star Rating
  • Bad Boy:

    So …. what to recommend ?

    Follow PRC , introduce 996 else 8816 ? Jack Ma endorsed it.

    996 = 9am start work, 9pm stop work, 6 days a week.

    GD Star Rating
  • LIONS:

    Dont worry,this CEO-GENERAL will sell SPH to FOREIGNERS soon just like before.

    LOL! $cholars are talent$?

    They fiack up in govy,they fiack up in agencies n they fiack up in GLCs.

    With $cholars like this,SG N sgs will be farked completely sooner than later.

    The TIP OF THE ICEBERG is already showing everywhere in SinCity.

    GD Star Rating
  • Lorri Chia:

    How many of you have bought a newspaper or magazine recently? If not, why do you care about saving SPH?

    Newspapers around the world are asking for donations. Advertising revenue has fallen quite a lot.

    Even our radio deejays came out to do a song and dance asking people to advertise. They don’t normally do that.

    GD Star Rating
  • once mighty Spore:

    Best CEO:
    We need him to sink SPH quickly, the evil propaganda machinery of greedy PAP.

    pap paper general who sank NOL will sink sph for sure.

    unfortunately, all things pap, citizens’ CPF shall be used to rescue or resurrect or throw smoke over the matter.

    being the pap mouthpiece, the 100% scenario is pap shall abuse citizens’ CPF to rescue the sank sph. truly WTF this pap voted into government by 70% sheep.

    GD Star Rating
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