SPH and MRT: Two sinking ships?

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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Two very troubled Singapore institutions have been hogging the news the last week. Both have a direct impact on the lives of Singaporeans. One –  Singapore Press Holdings and its jurassic Pyongyang Times-era newspapers  – we can live without in the age of social media – but  the other –  MRT – we can’t.

Let’s look at SPH. It just went through another round of staff spring-cleaning.  The 10 per cent trimming exercise was already anticipated way back last year when the media conglomerate announced a review of its operations across various media platforms. This was the then CEO Alan Chan’s farewell “gift” (or slap) to loyal workers before he made way for Ng Yat Chung. What the new CEO, the wunderkind former captain of the sunken NOL, has just announced as his nice-to-know-you hello present – the laying off of 230 people – was practically non-news.

SPH goes through such exercises periodically. As a big company with a staff strength of 4,000-5,000 at any one time, these self-renewal acts are necessary and many large corporations do the same thing.

For SPH, however, these attempts at so-called self-renewal do not tell the real story. It knows full well that print newspapers are a sunset industry, with some exceptions in the US because of Donald Trump who has been at war with the media elite and been giving the New York Times and Washington Post and maybe even CNN a fresh lease of life.

Being a savvy media company with strong resources, the company has been trying out all types of platforms to test and carve out niche markets at every segment, especially those aimed at millennials, otherwise known as the HENRYs (high earnings, not rich yet), who are replacing the fading babyboomers as the next big democratic group.

SPH has not been idle. Here is a small list of such efforts: Project Eyeball (a defunct “serious” morning tabloid at $1 per copy!), STOMP (still around), AsiaOne (about to disappear into thin air), Streats, My Paper (merged with The New Paper) and The New Paper as a younger brother of the forcibly closed down spunky New Nation.

The Straits Times itself has undergone the occasional facelift, each time with the promise of better service to the readers and, usually with a breathless declaration of self-importance, the community of Singaporeans!

The big questions are: Are Singaporeans buying the SPH flagship publication per se? Are they buying the stories published in the paper?

Part of the answer to the first question, which is No, lies in these just released 2017 figures:

Group operating revenue fell by 8.2 per cent to $1.03 billion.  Advertising revenue fell by $103 million, or 16.9 per cent, while circulation revenue dropped by $8.7 million, or 5.1 per cent.

The answer to whether Singaporeans actually need to pay for and get the press release-type government news dutifully churned out by the state machinery is, of course, a resounding No. Not today, even less so in the years ahead. As DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam says, Singaporeans are no longer idiots, they have other avenues and sources.

SPH is stuck in a no-win situation.  Put bluntly: It should and probably wants to be a real newspaper – report objectively without undue constraint and serve Singaporeans well. Its reporters surely wish to be truly professional.

But it can’t and will not be allowed to be other than a state mouthpiece. And so, all these self-renewal exercises will come to naught, as each editor comes and goes and is sidelined or sent to a think-tank should he or she get out of line.

The company is not only in a sunset industry, it is still groping around in the dark ages.

Equally stuck in the tunnel and possibly sinking is the MRT, otherwise known as Khaw Boon Wan’s Nightmare.

One picture which will probably be the Picture of the Year is that of a MRT train stuck in flood water somewhere in a Bishan underground tunnel track. Flood water in an MRT tunnel? Incredible. What next? So much for maintenance and system checking. A state media writer had the audacity to float the insulting excuse that it could be the result of climate change. What has a faulty pump got to do with climate change?

Incompetence and poor checking caused the disruption of the N-S Line, pure and simple. To assuage public anger, SMRT has removed its vice-president of maintenance and replaced him with another person.

But where does that leave its CEO and the Transport Minister? Desmond Kuek should have been sacked like eons and many lame excuses ago.

What about Khaw? I would say he is somewhere at the stage where ex-DPM Wong Kan Seng was when Mas Selamat escaped under his nose. At least Wong had the honour to say he was sorry for the lapse and took full responsibility, and subsequently left. Good for him.

It is time for Khaw to go.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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115 comments

  1. Paul Gomes says:

    They are good for SAF as Army not facing any war like situation if so good luck in the defence of the country. As for the Cooperate world they they try r running like the SAF. I personally think Mr. Khaw should not go it’s the head of SMRT or former NOL chief should be sack. See like former LTA Chief offer to resign same on you the current CEO of SPH. What rubbish are you going to feed the citizens.

  2. Andy Heng says:

    U don’t run a business or a country in military style else you would fail big time. We have seen much already, isn’t it enough? Soon our country or businesses will be destroy in the hand of these morons…

  3. When he took over NOL, among the first things he did was to retrench staff to so called cut costs. Except their salaries , of course. Few years down the road, NOL was in foreigners hands and a couple of years the new owners brought it back to profitability. Looks like history will repeat itself with SPH!

  4. These Paper Generals are all formal Scholars only with extra 4years of studies returned from oversea institutions put on General Rank without any Army tought training unable to command a division at war but be paper General after 8years bond go into elite Administration services all reserved for them without experience but create choious and Problems These all using Tax payers money Their salaries is 100time more than oridinary citizen Protected by Powers Cannot resigned even with major faults!!!!

  5. What would you expect the government to do? Here are people whom they schooled from young, selected because of their scholastic abilities and when found to be less than competent in adult life, the government cannot just get rid of them? It is tantamount to the government admitting that their policy of elitism is flawed. And the government is not one to admit mistakes from its past.

    The private sector doesn’t want them because they are paper generals and can’t turn a profit. The civil service is also filled with scholars and all without entrepreneurship. So they dump them into NOL and SMRT, hoping their underlings will teach them a thing or two about the fundamentals of running a private corporation. But things don’t work out as planned.

    And when they fail again, they will just parachute them into another government linked company and keep their fingers crossed again.

    Meanwhile the public suffers but the generals remain stoic and defiant in the face of adversity, reducing head count, blaming everyone but themselves.

    It doesn’t bode well in the future for Singapore and Singaporeans.

    1. Used to be less harmful places like the NTUC – to employ those who are not employable to the level of their highly imaginative belief of their self worth.

  6. Academically is good at setting goals and platform to a Society. Afterwhich, it is not brain dead to just work. There are many others whom obtain ‘O’ levels, come out to work, gain experience to climb the tertiary level doing Part Time Study. Thru network, interacting with different background of people creates their awesome tactfulness to environment changes esp in Knowledge + digitally changed forecast.
    Some scholars to me, is only based on logic, narrow mindedness. Its like this means this.
    The most impressive of them is no Empathy or lack of, at the expense of Poor Sporeans, maximising Profits for Govt.
    I pity some of them as they have no virtues, religious that they emphasize on but never exercise it on action.
    Maybe Hell is waiting for them.
    I only Pray to have Spore Voters to Vote against them….
    Have an Breakthrough…A Breakthrough of a Honourable Mr Wong Teng Cheong whom uphold his Integrity.

  7. Employing non experienced management to run public service….. high pay but Low productivity a waste of tax payers money $$$$$$$ …. Parliament must review this system why did not engage field of experienced people to have the right fit and do the job with reasonable pay $$$$$

  8. Singapore is built for profit for stakeholders.The first stakeholders is the British, followed by Hongkong, China and lastly India and the sub contract countries. US have merged with with China and Hongkong for better business trade. The identity of being a Singaporean is a end game if you don’t have money or skill sets. Life is harsh being a prey. The predator is even more vulnerable. It’s being interdependent that makes a boat sail smoothly

  9. Jasen Lee says:

    I always feel my own “heart,” after using my brains. I will ask myself :-
    Am I doing the right things.
    Have I hurt anyone?
    Did I really get all the facts correct.

    I “ROD” from the SAF on a Friday. I immediately started to work the following Monday.
    I have worked in a factory learning a lot of technical things and going for courses at night.
    I have wake up at 5 am in the morning to take buses to Jurong.
    I reach home at 8 pm every night.
    After two years I quit and stated to work in heavy equipment construction equipments, spare parts, shipping, etc.
    I am always willing to learn.
    A night I went for my IM (Marketing Course)
    After 5 years I started my own business in Indonesia.
    I flew to many parts in Indonesia.
    My father can “Spoilt” me as I am the only son.
    That is I really don’t have to work that hard.
    He was very strict, what I have done wrong. He will scold and then explain to me.
    He never laid a hand on us, his children.
    I followed his way of teaching my Family and children.

    Why spoil your children? In future, they cannot survive on their own.

  10. Rodney Ang says:

    On second thought, these Paper Generals are better suited in their Uniform position than their Business position. Though they had gone thru the ups-and-downs of military training, they have not the least experience of the ups-and-downs of real-world business.

  11. Ryan Lee says:

    Stop parachuting those incompetent Paper Generals into Parliament and Important positions in the corporate world.

    The group of Army Scholars are book smart, not street smart, they don’t have what it takes to succeed in the corporate world after being used to barking out orders in camp!

  12. Rodney Ang says:

    Please do not disrespect Paper Generals. They’re there for a reason, to shift Goalposts for their supreme master. Sometimes, they simply shifted in the wrong direction and need to sign Extra Duties.

  13. Gary Ng says:

    That’s why retired generals are hardly employed by any company except the Govt. They will listen to command without questioning their boss why.

  14. Our govt is like a military organisation. In military where the superior were well respected by his downline and any decision has to be respected. You cant disagree whatever their decision….good or bad. This is what BG Lee has turn this states into military states. He rope in his army buddies and let in this useless BG to run his ninistries and GIC which run into massive losses. No one will question them.Military were supposed to protect our country but this bunch of BGs simply ruined our country economically and socially. The man who rope them in were to be blamed.

    1. Bro, our government is like a MLM (Multi Level Marketing) organizational. Goh Chok Tong – Prime Minister to Senior Minister to Emeritus Minister. Will he reach Diamond Minister? He really needs to have some good downline leaders. Also, a non medical trained person goes on national TV to talk about Diabetes, the world is full of possibilities isn’t it?? Exactly the same crap that MLM companies try to sell U to believe in. Lol

  15. Like support like. LHL was also a military man. Sigh! It is simplistic to believe that just cos these men come from a supposedly highly regimented and disciplined background, they can whip a company in shape. Sometimes what a company needs is not attitude management but skill, talent and the right tools and technology to solve the problem. Making staff prep reports that are not going to be read (don’t we all know that in NS, these reports are just eye wash and no one really reads them) is detrimental to the biz.

    1. Company doesn’t need attitude management imfrom military across the board.. Perhaps, only the stirrer in the compamy need to applied the military attitude managemebt

  16. Henre Tan says:

    One already down (NOL), just wait and see which one is next to go down the same road. With all these useless mf sitting on top including the toptop one, we are all in a sinking ship, and, it’s rolling down the abyss ultra fast….all the buildup by the old guards are being demolished by the world most dishonorable one and the group of totally useless buggers.

  17. Chris Chen says:

    What do these military people know about running companies? Even when they were in the army, they were sitting in nice airconditioned ops room planning. The ones who are running in the field are the men and enciks.

  18. Gan Dan says:

    That’s what happens when you PARACHUTE PAPER GENERALS WITH ZERO CORPORATE EXPERIENCE into top positions…

    As much as it pains me to see this, maybe SG needs a fucking wake up call…

    Get this bloody government out…

  19. The ceo or boss that lead these govt coys are not businessman himself. All successful businessman in the world has failed in his first business venture or if his lucky he started fm scratch and build slowly and in history that will take 15 years or more like Jack Ma. However in those smrt and sph cases, thy are pressed to prove revenue every morning every week for the owner and stakeholders demand. How can they perform like this in LR? To the ceo he wants this hotseat position is due to high salary and not bec he can increase the coy revenue by other means except than typical 2 methods, ie, 1. by slashing of expenses in order to increase revenue or 2. increase the fare to generate faster revenue. Bec of these 2 methods are required and thought in school, he devoid of knowledge of main root of the business which is problem solving. Problem solving requires macro understanding of the business and experience fm both engineering and operational aspects

    1. Jasen Lee says:

      Being a businessman, you must know what’s going round the world, the demand, the market, customers behavior and demand, etc.
      When we speak, people respect and like to communicate with us.
      This is only the beginning.

    2. Jasen Lee says:

      Doesn’t mean getting lots of studies and certificates are capable of handling everything.
      Why is there a word, “book worm?”
      You need real brains to do what we have learn.
      You need practical, get to the “bottom,” to learn and see.
      Learn from History and Not To Repeat History.
      Have U.S. won’t any war alone till today?

  20. Tito Hsiao says:

    The G should STOP getting PAPER GENERALS who are absolutely not cut out to manage a business to assume such positions in government agencies!

    They are a bunch of MORONIC brains when it comes to running a corporation and do not have that sense of accountability in their military mindsets. Speaking of military mindsets, they are deemed naive and simply a narrative version.

    It doesn’t meant that I am good at playing MONOPOLY, I will be a great businessman or corporate governor. To say that they are CLUELESS of what they supposed to do in a business enterprise is an understatement.

  21. Jasen Lee says:

    Look at these Two Idiotic Faces! Do they look like Military Men?
    Handling over a Flag, in the Army we don’t smile, ok?
    Do it the Military Way, Military Salute And Honour. The Army is to protect the country!
    Fierce And Ruthless!
    They think they are handing over Boy Scout Flag?
    Disgrace to the Country!
    Don’t show these to the outside of the country.
    You are all making a MOCKERY OF SINGAPORE.
    Go to your Playground And Play.
    A REAL DISGRACE!

    1. Jasen Lee says:

      James WengHoong Lam Generals train with their men. Show that their chiefs can do things together with their men. Their men will have confidence, respect and honour.

    1. Jasen Lee says:

      Also some got into the Army because the police dare not “touch” them.
      I can still remember an incident commandos and the police nearly got into a fight in Changi.
      Those were the days, real tough men. Ready to protect and fight for Singapore.
      My neighbor was the First Commando RSM, a Real Military Man. That time the Army “invested” a lot in him.
      A Military Man is always be a Military Man.
      What Gurkhas? We don’t need them.
      In History, they were used by Britain for their loyalty.
      Today things changes.
      A few years ago, I was drinking in a disco and got to know two Gurkha offices.
      Once, they were very drunk and told me, “don’t be afraid we are here to protect Singapore.”
      My reply to him was, “I go to the SAF not for fun. I am ready to fight for my country.”
      Until today, I never regret saying those words.

    1. Facebook Profile photo
      Jairus Lau ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      The SAF is privileged and spoilt. The top, the mandarins ,are ministers, CEOs of government linked companies, the 2nd tier, the colonels, become schools’ OMs, operation managers. Glorified office boys, look after maintenance, transport, security, work the adminanistraion manager can assume. If the future is so neatly designed, the safety net in place, where’s the fight? That’s one reason why the system fails.

  22. This fat shit general is using his same retrenchment tactic he used at NOL where he retrenched 9% or 1000 of the workforce in 2008. Now 9 years on in 2017, he took over in May, barely 6 months, now cut 10% or 230 of the workforce while maintaining his fat shit salary. The other SMRT CEO is forever hiding under women’s skirts, never speak up when trains broke down. Instead, he gone for limelight when they “ownself praise ownself” for doing a good job when propaganda news survey claimed customer satisfaction increased and commuters are generally happy with the rail service.
    So, in the name of brotherhood, all blacks can also become whites as long these two, fat shit and the hid under women skirts CEOs have the support of the whites!

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