The South China Morning Post's Revolving Door Revolves Again

Reginald Chua, who was brought in from the Wall Street Journal in July of 2009 as editor of the South China Morning Post, is leaving the paper, according to an email to the staff from Kuok Hui Kwong, the Post's managing director and chief executive officer.

Chua's departure, set for the end of March, is rumored to have been forced by the family of sugar tycoon Robert Kuok Hock Nien, which owns the paper, one of the most influential in Asia. Although Chua was said to be well liked, his departure continues a long parade through the revolving door that has seen a half dozen editors come and go in as many years. The fate of David Lague, the paper's managing editor and an ally who was brought in by Chua, is not known at this point.

Neither Chua nor Lague was available for comment on Friday night. Cliff Buddle was named acting editor in chief, according to a memo sent out to employees at 9 pm Friday. .

The Kuok Group acquired the SCMP from Rupert Murdoch in 1993, reportedly as a favor to the Communist government in Beijing to keep it in safe hands. Chua's ouster thus leaves big questions about the paper and has sparked fears that its editorial independence is under threat. According to reports in Hong Kong and Malaysia, Robert Kuok, the 87-year-old patriarch, has been dissatisfied with often-critical reporting about China. Kuok is one of Southeast Asia's richest men.

Fears over the journalistic independence of the paper have been sparked particularly by new top staff recruited from the Kuala Lumpur-based Star, Malaysia biggest English-language daily. The paper is owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the country's second-biggest ethnic political party, and has severely limited the amount of independent journalism that its reporters can practice. Opposition figures and rallies are routinely ignored or denigrated.

There are concerns that reporting in the SCMP will come to resemble that of Malaysia, where journalistic freedom is tightly constricted and dominated by newspapers owned by the country's biggest political parties.

A few months ago, the South China Morning Post brought in Steven Tan, the former executive deputy chairman of The Star, as chairman of the SCMP's executive committee, in a position above Chua.. Tan had takenk a struggling Malaysian newspaper on the 1990s and turned it into the most profitable journalistic enterprise in the country. Reportedly one of the highest-paid executives in Malaysia, Tan was given the honorific title of datuk by the government, an indication of his loyalty.

Tan, said to be a personal friend of Hui Kuok, brought in Ng Poh Tip, the Star's former chief editor, to the South China Morning Post in recent weeks. Michael Aeria, also a Star alumnus, has also been brought in in a management role..He is expected to take over the paper's new media branch, sources told Asia Sentinel. .

Chua, a Singaporean, spent 16 years with the Wall Street Journal, rising to deputy managing editor, before moving to the Post. Prior to moving to New York, he was the editor of the Journal's Hong Kong-based Asian edition. According to sources inside the paper, he lost a couple of key battles with Tan, one when he opposed a hugely expensive redesign of the paper which has yet to see the light of day

The paper has dumped a long series of political reporters and editors dealing wth China, in particular Willy Wo Lap Lam and Mark O'Neill. It has always been very much an establishment newspaper, particularly in its coverage of Hong Kong's tycoons. The paper's top job is equally precarious, as Chua has learned. One senior editor said he had served under six editors in just eight years.

The latest before Chua was CK Lau*, who got the job when an American, Mark L. Clifford, was discharged in April of 2007 after just a year in the job, having antagonized the staff. Lau in turn had ruled since Australian David Armstrong had moved to the Bangkok Post while maintaining a oversight job as editor in chief in Hong Kong. Armstrong had been editor from 1994 to 1996. He came back for several mnths, but quit following a failure with an Indian, Thomas Abraham, who was seen as likable and intelligent but insufficiently experienced either with newspaper management or the politics of Hong Kong media ownership. He survived only two years after being brought in to replace Robert Keatley, a former editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal and himself viewed as a venerable stop-gap who did two years before retiring. He had succeeded the well-known British editor and author Jonathan Fenby.

The Kuok family member driving decisions now is 33-year old Kuok Hui Kwong, the youngest of Robert Kuok's eight children, who took over from an older offspring, Kuok Koon Ean, 61. She was briefly an investment banker after graduating from Harvard. Kuok Koon Ean was viewed as intelligent but indecisive and more at home with the Kuoks' hotel and property businesses, mainly the Shangri-la Hotel chain and Kerry Properties, than this awkward but rather public media outlet.

*Corrected 5 March 2011