Umbrage and A Tale of Two Singapores

Paper, Education, Freedom Of The Press, Journalism


A simple word. And a strange word to many Singaporeans. In that one word, Ng Yat Chun, CEO of Singapore Press Holdings, revealed the split between the two Singapores.

As advertising revenue falls, SPH will be restructuring itself into a non-profit entity. By becoming a company limited by guarantee, it will be able to obtain funding from private and public sources, including financial support from the government. When questioned by a journalist about maintaining editorial independence, Ng said:

Honestly, I take umbrage at your first question. …For SPH we always had advertising and we have never, never conceded to the needs of advertisers, so we will always continue to provide fair, credible reporting. …The fact that you dare to question (the editorial independence of) SPH titles… I take umbrage at that comment. I don’t believe that even where you come from, you concede. In doing your job, you do not concede to the needs of advertisers.”

In uttering ‘umbrage’, Ng sparked an Internet sensation. Singaporean companies and Internet personalities jumped on the word to crack jokes, advertise products, push ideas. Here, we see the two Singapores.

The first Singapore is the technocratic elite. In school they were academic overachievers, becoming government scholars, and completed their education in the Ivy League or other prestigious foreign universities. In National Service, the men take on leadership positions. Those who make the military their career become high-ranking officers. Those who leave enter public service and climb the career ladder. After retirement, the officers are parachuted into C-suite roles at major local companies. Along the way, they are invited for tea with members of the People’s Action Party, with an eye towards recruitment. Those who accept will be positioned as candidates for the next elections, with a stellar record of high-profile leadership and service. The best of these candidates will run for elections in a Group Representative Constituency, anchored by a Cabinet minister, thus minimising their chances of electoral loss. With their top-flight education, wealth and power, words like ‘umbrage’ come easily, even naturally.

The second Singapore is everybody else. The common people, those who want to live their lives without aspiring to high office. They go through the public education system, and those who become scholars tend to stay in Singapore. With little interest in politics, the government has little interest in them. They speak the language of the common people, the creole called Singlish. Singlish is essentially English applied to Chinese grammatical rules and pronunciation, with loanwords from regional languages. A word like ‘umbrage’ was never part of the vocabulary. It is a word spoken by the British colonials, the British-educated administrators, and now, the technocrats.

Any Singaporean who speaks in fluent English and uses fancy vocabulary like ‘umbrage’ marks himself as a member of the technocrats. A class that is perceived as increasingly divorced from the needs and wants of regular Singaporeans—and yet the same class that rules over them.

The PAP, and therefore the government, has always favoured the technocrats. Every minister, every high-ranking government bureaucrat and military official, every leader of every government-linked entity, has followed the same life trajectory. The same education path, the same career path, the same headhunting process, the same soft landing in high-powered positions. It is a life trajectory that diverges sharply from the common people, and the gap only grows wider with time.

The government believes that the technocrats are best suited for governance. Reality says otherwise.

In the military, Ng Yat Chun served as Chief of Defence Force, the head of the Singapore Armed Forces. After leaving the military in 2007, he was appointed as a senior executive in Temasek Holdings, which is an investment management company owned by the government. In 2011, he joined Neptune Orient Lines as an Executive Director, and then he was appointed Group President and CEO. Like Temasek, NOL was wholly-owned by the Singapore government.

Until 2016.

In May 2016, NOL reported net losses of US$105.1 million for the first quarter, an order of magnitude higher than the losses of US$10.8 million reported a year earlier. In June, Temasek Holdings tendered its NOL shares to CMA CGM, a French container transportation and shipping company. Following the sale, NOL is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of CMA CGN. By 2017, CMA turned NOL around, posting a net profit of US$ 27 million.

On 20 July 2016, Ng was appointed as independent director of SPH. The following September, he became the CEO. The next month, SPH launched a retrenchment exercise to lower wage costs. Fast forward to 6 May, and SPH announced its restructuring.

Ng might have been one of the finest military officers in Singapore. However, his record in the private sector leaves much to be desired.

His outburst at the reports is a textbook military response to a perceived attack: respond with more aggression. A CEO with media training and experience would have responded with candor and coolness. On the other hand, Ng was far less successful as a CEO than as a soldier. His remarks turned him into meme and joke fodder—but it also deflected attention from an extremely important question:

Will SPH be independent of government influence?

Singapore is ranked 160 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. Myanmar, currently experiencing a coup, and had shut down the Internet to restrict the flow of information, is ranked at 140. The government does not consider press freedom an important indicator, and the media itself refuses to report this ranking.

Ng says SPH provides “fair, credible reporting”. Yet this is clearly not true.

For decades, the mainstream media in Singapore has provided lopsided coverage of the general elections, consistently favouring the PAP over the Opposition. Only when The Online Citizen provided on-the-ground reports from Opposition rallies did the media give more attention to the Opposition. This included the SPH newspapers.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Leong Sze Hian and Roy Ngerng for defamation. Leong and Ngerng raised the monies through intense crowdfunding efforts. No SPH paper reported this.

I myself have been the target of fake news twice. The first time when the media claimed that Bloggers 13 wanted a ‘ near free for all’, the second time when the Sad and Rabid Puppies campaigns were reported as anti-diversity movements.

These are just some of the most recent and egregious examples of ‘fair, credible reporting’ by the mainstream media, including the newspapers that fall under SPH.

With SPH transitioning into a non-profit, it is now eligible for additional government funding. Given the current media landscape in Singapore, it is extremely unlikely that the government wants to see SPH fail. SPH is home to 17 newspapers, including the The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao and Lianhe Wanbao, Shin Min Daily News, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu. Every major newspaper in Singapore, with the exception of TODAY newspaper, is owned by SPH. SPH is one of the government’s principal means of communicating policies to everyone in Singapore in every major language.

The government will likely inject huge sums into SPH directly to ensure it remains solvent. There is certainly no reason for it not to make that offer. With this funding comes an additional source of pressure. Should any newspaper run any article critical of the government, it will become easy for the government to retaliate by pulling funding. As SPH will no longer seek profits in October, it will become entirely reliant on the entities that choose to fund it. Under Ng’s leadership, SPH has given the government an opportunity to get skin in their game.

Retired Straits Times editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng notes in his book ‘OB Markers’ that the government holds that the media does not play a watchdog role, because it does not contest in the elections. Should it criticize policies passed by Parliament, it will be “deemed to have interfered in politics”. I have heard off-the-record stories of government officials calling up journalists and editors demanding them to pull or edit stories that paint the government in a negative light. Through the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the government licenses newspapers. No newspaper may publish in Singapore without first obtaining a permit.

By restructuring itself as a not-for-profit entity, SPH is exposing itself to even more government control. Should it accept public funding, it will become a nationalised media organisation in all but name. This gives the technocrats even more overt power over the lives of the people, and the power to bring swift retaliation against any SPH paper that criticises the establishment.

While former journalists like Bertha Henson and Cherian George seem optimistic that this change presents an opportunity for renewal and to upgrade their standards, I remain skeptical. The technocrats at the top have shown no sign of changing up the leadership formula, even in the face of such crises. With this restructuring, should SPH accept government funding, every major newspaper will be placed even more firmly under the control of the government, one that sees the press not as a watchdog for the people but as a ‘nation building media’.

SPH is poised to become the voice of the government, one manned entirely by technocrats at the upper echelons of power—technocrats who are seen as increasingly out of touch with the common people and less capable than their predecessors. Point this out and they will take umbrage.

In a cyberpunk future, what happens when the people have had enough of an all-powerful government? You get something like The Singularity War.

Umbrage and A Tale of Two Singapores

3 thoughts on “Umbrage and A Tale of Two Singapores

  1. I hope that this does not spell the end of free speech in Singapore. Best wishes.

    P.s. Singlish sounds really interesting, I have no idea how it would work, I’ll have to look into it.

    1. As with most of the world, the government believes that rights flow from it.

      Free speech in Singapore has always been treated as a privilege, not a right.

  2. Benjamin,

    Yeah the political elites are so insufferable. They’ve never dirtied their hands or worked for a living. Everything’s handed to them as long as you play ball and be a good little guy.

    I share your skepticism. People are tuning out and seeking other forms of information, hence the anti ‘fake news’ law. Eventually the party will be shocked to learn about Singaporeans’ acedia and don’t care attitude

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