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Semafor LogoGina Chua
Gina Chua
mediaSoutheast Asia

A circulation scandal at Southeast Asia’s biggest media company

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A view of the media and real estate company Singapore Press Holdings Ltd (SPH) office in Singapore November 3, 2021
REUTERS/Caroline Chia

SPH Media, Singapore’s dominant news organization, has been derided for many failings — being too stodgy, too pro-government, too financially inept — but circulation irregularities haven’t been one of them. Until now.

Last week, The Straits Times — SPH Media’s flagship newspaper — reported that an internal review had revealed the company had overstated the circulation of all its titles by 85,000 to 95,000 daily average copies, or 10% to 12% of reported daily circulation, from September 2020 to March 2022. Papers were printed and pulped, some subscriptions were double-counted, and some accounts were, well, just made up.

“Certain circulation figures were arbitrarily derived,” a SPH Media spokesperson put it dryly.

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For those of us who grew up in the heyday of Singapore Press Holdings, as it was called then, under the Singapore government’s unique arsenal of tools to manage the media, it’s been surreal to watch a colossus — once one of Asia’s most successful media companies — crumble.

SPH used to occupy an enviable position among media companies — as an officially-endorsed near-monopoly in an affluent, fast-growing Asian economy, it managed to both be relentlessly pro-government and massively profitable. It may not have been the most beloved choice of readers, but for a long time it was the only outlet for local news, not least because of the government’s tight hold on newspaper licenses.

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The fat profits it derived from that position allowed it to expand its ambitions into multimedia and across the region. I got my start in the early 1990s as a (well-paid) foreign correspondent with The Straits Times covering the Philippines: in 1993, when I jumped to The Wall Street Journal, my wages dropped from $100,000 a year to just over $60,000, the biggest percentage cut I’ve taken until — ahem! — joining Semafor.

But when the internet opened Singapore to domestic and international competition, readers and advertisers started to desert SPH’s titles. In late 2021, it gave up on trying to make money. The media division was spun off into SPH Media, a non-profit company with an assurance of government funding to the tune of $140 million a year for the next five years.

The circulation scandal — broken by Wake Up Singapore, one of the city-state’s few (but growing) alternative media outlets — shows how much deeper SPH Media’s crisis goes. If, despite having a near-monopoly, you still have to inflate circulation by 10% or more, that suggests a deep disconnect with Singaporean readers.

SPH Media isn’t doing itself any favors with its bland coverage of the story where none of the obvious questions were asked, let alone answered. Who was responsible? What action was taken? How long has this been going on? When did management find out?

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There’s a long tradition of underestimating the resilience and staying power of Singapore’s policies and institutions. It’s a small country run by a pragmatic government that’s more focused on getting things done than on ideology. And it needs a press that its citizens read, if not fully trust.

No one doubts SPH Media will survive: the group matters too much to the government for it to go under. But regaining trust — of readers, advertisers, and even the government — will be an uphill slog.

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