Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) chief executive officer Ng Yat Chung took offence to a reporter's question about SPH's goal of "editorial integrity" at a news conference on Thursday (6 May) to announce plans to spin off the conglomerate's ailing media business.
SPH's CEO, Ng Yat Chung, appeared to take umbrage at a question by a CNA reporter, who asked:
Qn 1: Editorial integrity vs taking care of advertisers' interests
"Just now you mentioned that the revenue from CLG (company limited by guarantee) will now be channelled into the new constitution of the company... does it mean that the media business will now pivot to emphasise editorial integrity, for example, ahead of advertiser interests?
Qn 2: Who's responsible for SPH's dwindling performance?
The second question is, this move (comes after) various corporate initiatives to improve the sustainability of the media business. Is it fair to say that these initiatives have failed, and if so, where does the responsibility lie? Thank you."
CEO Ng Yat Chung takes 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.
So I think that, please, ok? I would say, at least for SPH, right, we have always had advertising and we have never ever considered the (needs) of advertisers, alright, so we always continue to write fair, reliable, and credible reporting.
So in reporting the answer to this, I will tell you first that the question, the fact that you dare to question SPH's title for, in your words, conceding to the (advertisers), I take umbrage at that comment.
Because I don't believe that even where you come from, you will concede in doing your job, you do not concede to the... (advertisers). So I must call it out. In fact, chairman is a gentleman, I'm not. SPH, the purpose of doing this is to make sure that SPH media will continue to do the job we have done so well for so long!"
Ng did not respond to the 2nd question.
Who is Ng Yat Chung?
1. He was a SAF scholar.
Ng is an alumnus of Victoria School and Hwa Chong Junior College.
He then received a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Overseas Scholarship in 1980 and graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in engineering from Christ's College, Cambridge University.
2. He has three Master's degrees.
Following which, Ng went on to obtain three Master's degrees:
- 1. Master of Arts (Mathematics) from Cambridge University
- 2. Master of Military Art and Science (General Studies) from Command & General Staff College, USA, and
- 3. Master of Business Administration from Stanford University
3. He was the fifth Chief of Defence.
Ng succeeded Lim Chuan Poh as the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) in 2003.
He was the CDF from July 2003 to April 2007, with the rank of Lieutenant-General, before Desmond Kuek took over from him in 2007.
Prior to that, he was the Chief of Army from 2000 to 2003.
4. He was a senior executive at Temasek Holdings.
He had been the Head of Energy & Resources, Co-Head of Australia & New Zealand & Co-Head of Strategy between 2007 and 2011 in Temasek after retiring from the military.
His contributions to Temasek Holdings from 2007 to 2011 was not well-publicised but they were probably decent enough for Ng to be appointed in the well-publicised role as the group president and CEO of NOL in October 2011.
5. He was the former CEO of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL)
Ng was the group president and CEO of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) from October 2011 to June 2016.
Ng was the CEO for five years and his last four years saw NOL accumulate more than S$1.5 billion in losses.
In mid-2016, NOL was sold to France's CMA CGM, the world's third-largest shipping line and was delisted from the Singapore Exchange in late June that year.
6. He has been the Chief Executive Officer/ Executive Director at SPH since Sep. 1, 2017.
On May 26, 2017, SPH announced Ng as its new CEO, with him to take over the group from Sep. 1 that year.
According to ST, back when SPH made this announcement, its chairman Lee Boon Yang said:
“I am confident that Yat Chung will provide far-sighted and effective leadership for SPH. He will work closely with deputy CEO Anthony Tan and the Group Management Team to tap new ideas and initiatives to steer SPH to greater heights.”
Ng also said that he saw "vast opportunities that can be reaped" despite the challenges ahead and added that he was involved in the SPH's decision to enter healthcare and private nursing home sector with its acquisition of Orange Valley as a board member.
Ng Yat Chung's performance at NOL
Barring Temasek Holdings, Ng's stint at NOL was his first running a commercial entity as CEO - an appointment he took up in October 2011 until June 2016.
Since Ng became CEO, NOL had lost money every financial quarter.
In mid-2016, NOL was sold to France’s CMA CGM, the world’s third-largest shipping line and was delisted from the Singapore Exchange in late June.
To add salt to Ng’s wounds, Reuters reported the year after that CMA CGM achieved “a net profit of $26 million”, “a first quarterly net profit for NOL since 2011”.
Ng has been criticised by numerous publications for not being able to do so, despite five years as CEO.
Ng defended his performance at NOL as "NOL's past successes were built on its business model as a premium service line... This was always the way for NOL, even before the 2008 financial crash, and it did well." He then acknowledged that the company had been "a bit slow and reluctant to change".
Following the sale of NOL to CMA CGM, Ng eventually relinquished his role as chief executive of NOL. He stayed on as Special Advisor from June 2016 to May 2017.
Ng Yat Chung - just another inexperienced paper general?
Industry observers were surprised when Ng became CEO of SPH in September 2017 despite not having any media experience, let alone a commendable track record of running a company.
SPH itself has seen its revenue declined since 2012 from $1,031.2 million to $655.8 million in 2018.
In October 2020, SPH posted its first-ever full-year loss of $83.7 million - the first time in its 36-year history. Conveniently, Ng blamed it on COVID-19.
Ng said: “All our major business segments were severely disrupted by Covid-19. Our media business is badly affected by the collapse in advertising."
But is COVID-19 really to blame?
The New York Times (NYT), for example, made the largest gains in the same period.
Like SPH, ad sales for NYT declined but revenue from subscriptions for the latter increased.
By end-2020, digital revenue overtook print for the first time, and digital subscription revenue now makes up NYT's largest share of the pot at $167 million - a 37 percent jump from 2019 contributing to a total subscription (print & digital) revenue of $1.195 billion.
Granted, part of NYT's increase in revenue is attributed to the Presidential Elections of 2020 but a major part of it was also credited to NYT's coverage of the COVID pandemic.
Perhaps Ng is more suited in managing decline, not growth in an era where the unprecedented rise in digital transformation may prove too much for an inexperienced baby-boomer tasked with tackling problems of the 21st century with an 18th-century thinking.
Former Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee said in 1972:
"One of the tragic illusions that many countries of the Third World entertain is the notion that politicians and civil servants can successfully performen entrepreneurial functions. It is curious that, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the belief persists."
What a visionary.