Singapore Newspapers Caught Inflating Circulation
Subsidized government-backed media acknowledge fraud
Singapore’s government-owned print media face a major scandal, with executives of the parent SPH Media apparently cooking the books to inflate daily circulation by 85,000 to 95,000 copies per day, SPH Media officials acknowledged. Several unnamed senior executives are said to have been sacked, according to local media.
The publications, which are heavily subsidized by the government, include the broadsheets The Straits Times and The Business Times, the Chinese-language Lianhe Zaobao and Shin Min Daily News, and the Malay-language Berita Harian and the Tamil-language Tamil Murasu. Together, according to the 2021 SPH annual report, circulation is 840,500, with the digital portion at 462,400, meaning print copies at 378,100 accounted for the rest. While SPH said 10 to 12 percent of total circulation was fraudulent, it is believed that the fraud occurred primarily in print circulation, meaning that inflated circulation could run as high as 22 percent.
Referring to the inflated circulation of SPH Media newspapers, Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged younger brother of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said in a Facebook post on January 10, “Call a spade a spade. Isn’t this just plain fraud?” In another Facebook post on January 11, Hsien Yang said, “The Government is probably the biggest advertiser (in SPH Media newspapers). So the taxpayer has been paying more for ads besides funding the loss-making new entity? Will SPH reimburse advertisers who were overcharged? As a listed company, what financial reporting regulations were breached? How far back does this go?”
It is the second major embarrassment for a Singapore institution in recent months. In early November, FTX, once the world’s third-largest crypto exchange worth more than US$30 billion, collapsed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US and took down with it a US$275 million investment by Temasek, the Singapore sovereign wealth fund, which had to write off the entire amount. Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong told the Singapore Parliament on November 30 that “What happened with FTX, therefore, has not only caused financial loss to Temasek, but also reputational damage. Temasek recognizes this.” Temasek has initiated an internal review by an independent team to study and improve its processes, and to draw lessons for the future, said Wong, who is also finance minister.
According to local media, the SPH irregularities came to light during a review of internal processes in March of 2022. An SPH Media spokesperson told local media, "Some inconsistencies in the reporting of the data were discovered, and we have immediately taken steps to strengthen processes. The staff involved had been taken to task, or had left the organization."
The story was broken by an independent publication called Wake Up, Singapore, one of the few free voices left in the country, which has long been criticized by media protection organizations including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists for repressing free expression. The Paris-based RSF said on its website, “Two business groups control all of Singapore’s print and broadcast media. One, MediaCorp, is owned by a state investment company. The other, Singapore Press Holdings, is supposedly privately owned but the government appoints those who run it. As a result, self-censorship is widespread, including within the alternative independent media, which are intimidated by the judicial and economic pressure.”
The SPH media conglomerate has been flailing for several years as it lost income and readers. Given its relationship with the Singapore government, its credibility has been assailed by media watchdogs who have long criticized it for its timidity in reporting on government affairs.
A prominent independent publication, The Online Citizen, ceased publication in Singapore late last year, and moved to Taiwan after its owner and publisher, Terry Xu, was repeatedly sued by government officials.
Lim Tean, the leader of the opposition party People’s Voice, called for a commission of inquiry with subpoena power to get to the bottom of the scandal, saying an internal review would not suffice.
Although the SPH spokesperson didn’t say how long the inflation had been going on, the newspapers have faced falling circulation and income for several years. Apart from printing copies to be counted for circulation before being destroyed, other examples of inconsistencies were also discovered. Lapsed contracts continued to be counted into circulation data, local reports said, citing an SPH Media spokesperson, and that “Certain circulation numbers were arbitrarily derived.”
Inflated circulation figures are a serious matter. The Singapore Stock Exchange said it is reviewing the reports. Advertisers base the amount they pay for their ads to appear in the publications on the size of the audience they reach. In other countries, circulation manager have been jailed for inflating their numbers. The Singapore-based CNA news network reported it had contacted advertisers who were contemplating filing suit to recoup lost income.
In December 2021, Singapore Press Holdings, then the parent company, which also is involved in real estate, transferred its troubled media business into a not-for-profit entity called SPH Media Holdings. In a statement at the time, SPH said all media-related assets were to be transferred into SPH Media Holdings, with initial funding that included a cash injection of S$80 million (US$59.81 million) and S$30 million worth of SPH shares. To aid with the restructuring of its operations, the Singapore government announced in February 2022 that it would provide SMT up to S$900 million over the next five years, with the amount dependent on achieving certain targets such as reach and engagement of its products.
In an internal memorandum reported by Today newspaper, SPH chief editor Wong Wei Kong said SPH Media took a "painful but necessary" decision to make public that its past circulation figures were inaccurate. SPH Media is expected to get “a lot of stick” as “more things may come out”, Wong said without giving details.