The CEO takes umbrage

MAY 9 — Umbrage. That’s the trending word on Singapore’s cyberspace at the moment.

In fact, the trend has already crossed over into the real world with major brands like Tim Ho Wan offering umbrage promotions and there are even umbrage T-shirts available for sale.

Why has this rather antiquated term for taking offence come back into fashion?

Well, when Ng Yat Chung who is CEO of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) — Singapore’s main newspaper publishing group — was asked at a press conference about maintaining editorial independence under a proposed new business model, he took umbrage.

“Chairman, if I may, I honestly, I take umbrage at the first question. There are reporters from here who receive substantial funding from various sources. I don’t believe you will describe yourselves as bowing to the needs of advertisers in doing your job.

“... the fact that you dare to question SPH’s titles for, in your words, conceding to the (advertisers), I take umbrage at that comment.”

Basically, he was maintaining that SPH titles Straits Times, Lian He Zhao Bao and Berita Harian would continue to take an independent stance even after proposed changes that would see them become not-for profit donor funded organisations instead of advertising-based, profit-driven publications.

Singapore’s newspapers will now be run on donations. This is necessary because the advertising-based traditional model for news publications is in many cases no longer viable.

As social media and digital platforms have cornered the market for advertising, once-mighty publications like the Straits Times have become strapped for cash.

These papers can’t be run profitably any longer but for the Singapore public, journalism and newspapers are still a valuable source of information. Donor-funding will allow them to continue their role without worrying about profits.

However, it is likely that most of these donations will come from state-linked entities so questions about editorial independence do seem valid.

In fact, there have been very long-standing questions about the editorial independence of the media. Singapore ranks at a lowly 158th place in the global press freedom index – below Sudan and Belarus.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, is quoted as saying “freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”

So, a question about editorial independence seems perfectly valid and just why the CEO of a newspaper group would take umbrage and respond in this manner to a simple question asked by a journalist has many Singaporeans tickled – bringing far more focus to the event than it would have otherwise.

Reading online comments, it would seem for many an example of an overpaid state-linked company CEO showing the worst side of Singapore leadership.

But ultimately, umbrage aside, the most pertinent question is what does this mean for the city’s main broadsheet moving forward?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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