Singapore's Nose in South China Morning Post's Tent?

After a two-year dalliance with executives from the Kuala Lumpur-based Star English-language daily, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, one of the region’s most influential English-language dailies, opens its revolving doors to two senior Singapore Press Holdings executives in June.

The general impression at the South China Morning Post is that the former Star executives underwhelmed expectations although in the signature Malaysian way, they did not rock the boat or generate ill-will.

Former Singapore Press Holdings editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, who appeared quietly at the SCMP in January saying he was only there for three months, has now taken up a 12-month contract to advise and guide the paper’s recently-appointed mainland-born editor Wang Xiang Wei. Robin Hu, senior vice-president at Singapore Press Holdings, who was responsible for its Chinese Newspaper Division, is to become managing director and CEO.

Hu served for eight years with the Singapore newspaper group, overseeing the introduction of free Chinese and bilingual newspapers and entertainment sites. Hu also supervised the establishment of about 70 news kiosks for direct retail sales and upgraded the subscription sales system.He was also deputy chairman of SPH Magazines which also has a portfolio of magazines in Hong Kong.

The global impact of the generational shift to netizens has not spared the Straits Times, even for the protected dominant market position it enjoys in Singapore. The massive Press Holdings sales efforts to stem the annual circulation declines have achieved “a 0.6 percent improvement in the rate of annual decline” according to an SPH executive familiar with the operation.

The South China Morning Post is a lean structure that is over-managed and under-led within the territory’s cutthroat, entrepreneur-driven media environment. Singapore Press Holdings is top-heavy and bureaucratic, cushioned by virtual monopoly profits within a press cordon-sanitaire. How much of the Singapore press editorial and commercial experience can be usefully translated to Hong Kong will remain questionable, as it was for the trio from The Star.

In theory, given the regular infusion of administrative and security branch apparatchiks into Singapore Press Holdings, both Cheong Yip Seng and Robin Hu should be able to call on considerable manpower resources and backup to consolidate the Post’s press, magazine and retail assets. If that could lead to giving Singapore Press Holdings enough comfort to consider an acquisition, it could allow sugar baron Robert Kuok an exit after years of frustration.

Kuok has long hawked his shareholding but has been stymied by its poor share performance. He paid Rupert Murdoch HK$8 a share in 1998 and hopes to recoup a respectable exit value. The shares, however, have ranged between HK$1.30 and HK$2.00 over the past 52 weeks. On Apr. 13, they stood at HK$1.49. Potential buyers balk at his asking price and investors can’t see any upside without mainland China access.

China entry a mirage?

Access to China’s newspaper market has been a Kuok dream and an investor expectation for the last 15 years. Given the heightened sensitivities of the Chinese Communist Party to the leadership infighting for the next generation line-up in November this year, however, and the high-profile, still unraveling case of Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, plus the increasing challenges to party officials at the village level for selling peasant land to property developers without authorization, it is unlikely that the mainland would open its newspaper market to the Hong Kong press.

Ching Cheong, the Straits Times’ China bureau chief, was arrested and imprisoned by mainland authorities in April 2005, falsely accused of passing ‘state secrets’ to Taiwan and parlaying information for money to support a mistress in China. He was a former journalist with the communist party paper Wen Wei Po in Hong Kong who resigned along with 40 others after the Tienanmen massacre of 4 June 1989.

Ching was released after more than 1,000 days in prison on Feb 2008 by what is widely believed to be intervention by then newly promoted central party secretary Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping, now vice-president, is expected to be confirmed China’s next leader later this year.

The recent high-speed popping of skeletons from the cupboards of both party-approved chief executive candidates by the local press, with the South China Morning Post well on top of the story, has shaken the Beijing idea of stage-managing Hong Kong’s political processes. The promised universal voting franchise for the next chief executive in the 2017 election would prove equally unpredictable given Hong Kong’s vigorous journalism. China is very uncomfortable with the Hong Kong press.

Besides, there would be considerable protective resistance from China’s domestic newspapers, which went through forced industry consolidation when the government decreed a phased end to subsidies and merged titles into larger groups. They have discovered the joys of commercial success in a controlled market environment and have no reason to accept Hong Kong newspapers, which play by different rules.

New editor to share his vision for SCMP

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong is hosting a lunch talk on Apr. 17, titled “Navigating Change: Steering the SCMP to a brighter future” at which Wang Xiang Wei is to ‘share insights on setting the right course for the newspaper’.

Few of Wang’s subordinates in the editorial department have a clue what the new editor’s agenda is. Like newspaper tea-leaf readers in China, they are also reading between the lines of the paper’s daily editorials and wondering how long its columnists would be allowed their space and voice. They look forward to his lunch talk at the FCC.

At a newspaper conference in Bali which ended 12 April, Press Holdings delegates were abuzz with excitement that their experience serving the People’s Action Party and strongman Lee Kuan Yew is finally being recognized by a South China Morning Post desperate to please Beijing. Why that would be necessary when the paper has a Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) member as editor-in-chief seems to have escaped both the Singaporeans and the SCMP board.

To his credit, Wang Xiang Wei’s weekly Beijing Briefing column continues to be insightful, well informed and bold without the cringing-poodle style many expected.

The paper’s recent NPC coverage was respectable and it continues to track the Bo Xilai affair and the mystery of his lawyer-wife, even as mainland cyber-chatter is being locked-down.

Regime change at Straits Times editorial

The Straits Times editor of nine years, Han Fook Kwang, was replaced by former deputy editor Warren Fernandez in mid-February. Strangely, Han is not retiring or exiting for the usual corporate ‘to pursue other opportunities’ line. He is in fact being shifted sideways to managing editor with a broadened portfolio to include the English & Malay Newspapers Division plus book publishing.

Can either Han or Patrick Daniel editor-in-chief of EMND, to whom he will directly report, read or write Malay? That is just another quirk in the make-believe world of Singapore Press Holdings. Both Han and Patrick were gifted to the news operation from the civil service.

Warren Fernandez had a rapidly rising career over two decades as political correspondent, news editor, deputy political editor, foreign editor and deputy editor before leaving the news operation in 2008 to join Shell as global manager, future energy project and regional manager (Asia Pacific) as communications strategist. He returns to the group after Singapore’s watershed 2011 general election which saw high-profile opposition gains -- puny in any other country -- and a restive citizenry of younger voters who do not quite have the fear the older generation felt about PAP politicians of the Kian Yew era. The Lion City’s blogosphere is active, opinionated, contentious and un-enamored of the PAP.

The Straits Times has felt the cold hand of alternative media and has responded with a massive online presence for its share of cyberspace, aimed at both English-speaking youth and their Chinese language counterparts. Yet it has not quite blunted the dissident chatter and distrust of the mainstream media on domestic politics.

There is citizen resentment at PAP parliamentary reports being routinely front-paged while grudging opposition reports are buried inside. The new cohort of opposition voices match the academic and professional credentials of the PAP members of parliament with the difference that they are blooded on the streets as political figures in a highly one-sided contest with the cards stacked against them.

They are articulate and do their homework well for parliamentary debate. That has spooked younger-generation PAP members unused to robust parliamentary cut-and-thrust. By comparison, many new ministers look tongue-tied and wooden in parliament. That does not bode well for the next general election and beyond.

It calls for a fresh approach to journalism at the Straits Times. Being a too-obvious government mouthpiece is not playing well to the educated and well-traveled next generation of voters.

Perhaps the powers are convinced that Warren Fernandez can regain lost ground and credibility for the paper and its multimedia channels. The shifts in personnel following the editorial leadership changes are unsettling for the Straits Times journalists who, by and large, just want to get on with their lives, hacking without fuss.