WRITINGS ISABELLE TOW MEI ZHENG
Business / Op-Ed
Dire straits for The Straits Times? How an aspiring journalist’s interest to work at the local flagship paper led to a study of its business, problems, and if it can outwit them
By Isabelle Tow 18 January 2017
Last November I bumped into a former Straits Times journalist during a workshop at the Singapore Writer’s Festival and took the opportunity to share with her my hopes of joining her previous company. I half-expected her to say, ‘Go for it!’, instead, with a dark expression she delivered some gloomy news. She advised me against it, saying that the newsroom had been undergoing some drastic restructuring forced by declining revenues of the paper. She even suggested that I consider an alternative career altogether, advice she had given to her own younger brother, revealing that the troubles of the paper seemed to directly endanger the journalism profession locally. Hearing her advice was a bit of a dampener; I had to admit that up till our meeting my assessment of the viability of this career lacked any serious investigation into the health of the journalistic field in Singapore. Inspired by this incident and forced to quell newly-founded fears of the sustainability of the profession, I seek to establish what the main problem blighting The Straits Times (ST) is that their journalists are being forced out of work, and if the future prospect of the newspaper really is all that bleak. It would be necessary to first sketch out the economic reality of ST that the ex-journalist drew my attention to. The annual reports of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the media company that owns ST, have shown a steady year-on-year decline in its core Media Business revenues, having lost $60.9 million or 6.3 per cent in 2015, and then another $68.3 million (7.6 per cent) in 2016. The revenue lost was despite increases in ST and Sunday Times circulation numbers, which rose by 3.9 per cent in 2016. So why aren’t revenues increasing in tandem with the rise in newspaper circulation? The answer to this lies with the medium in which readers consume news by ST. Based on observations of the global newspaper industry by long-time journalists and media experts, the more readers opt to go online for their news instead of print, the further newspapers’ revenues will fall. As Rebecca J. Rosen wrote for The Atlantic, a newspaper’s revenue comes mostly from the high prices it charges for printed advertisements, which are five to ten times more compared to advertisements online. However, as more people own digital devices, their access to the news will shift increasingly online and advertisers will follow where they go so as their messages may reach where a captive audience is gathered. This shift has been the main cause of steady revenue losses that most newspapers including ST have been struggling to recoup. Despite a 56.8% growth in digital subscriptions in daily average circulation of ST and Sunday Times, its 9 per cent decline in their print versions still caused them the $68.3 million loss in revenue in 2016. And this dent in their coffers has inevitably affected the newsroom. ST subeditor Derek Wong confirmed that now was hardly the best time for the paper and that over the past year, “many contract staff did not have their contracts renewed, and other full-timers were let go”. Because the trend of digital consumption of information will only pervade, this problem is certainly a cause for concern for the traditional business model of newspapers that rely on print advertising to stay afloat.
However, it would be hasty to make the clarion call that this spells the imminent end of ST. There are some persuasive reasons that support the idea that ST can still maintain an enduring presence for the foreseeable future. Firstly, inasmuch as a comprehensive English daily broadsheet is concerned, ST is the only product in the local market and has few close competitors. This has afforded them the highest proportion of readers of any local paper – in the Singapore Media Index Report 2016 by survey company Nielson, they reported that ST’s print and digital news were read by nearly 3 in 10 adults daily. Other daily newspapers that compete with it, namely the freesheets Today and The New Paper, depart from ST in a number of key ways. The papers are approximately half the broadsheet size, with their content following their compact formats containing “concise” and relatively more soft news. Both papers also command a decidedly less authoritative voice than ST’s, which hinges in part on their “softer” content, especially The New Paper which is known as a tabloid paper. Their average daily readerships stand at 12.9 and 6.4 per cent respectively. As a result, ST is a sufficiently differentiated good that is presently non-substitutable with the existing competition. Additionally, Nielsen’s report also revealed that one in two adults turned to printed newspapers as their main provider of news, and just 14.9 per cent of local readers turned to digital newspapers. The finding shows that the conservative news consumption habits of Singaporeans may be the preserve of the newspaper business and ST, at least for the next decade or so before the current generation of heavily-digitized young people replaces the adult population. Whether ST goes under depends more than just its business viability; it also rests on the government’s discretion. Former long-time editor-in-chief of ST Cheong Yip Seng wrote in 2015 recalling how Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had viewed the media as a key institution he needed to control in order to govern effectively. Since 1982, with the installation of S. R. Nathan as executive chairman of ST, who would later become Singapore’s sixth president in 1999, many trusted civil servants have assumed a similar position to oversee the operations of ST and SPH. Evidently, the government has a vested interest in the content ST publishes and sees its importance in their governance. Most critically of course, despite all the saving graces of ST, it still needs to bravely meet the challenge of changing its business model in order to survive. As Cheong noted, newspapers are first and foremost a business even if sometimes idealistic journalists forget that fact. Perhaps this question will help elucidate perspectives in the midst of the disruption wrecked upon the business of newspapers today: where would Singapore be without The Straits Times? There is no denying the irresistible trend blighting the newspaper industry globally, but just because a trend is irresistible is no reason not to resist it. If Singaporeans will be left for poorer without a competent paper such as ST has been for over a century, perhaps it is more than worth saving. And as we save it, maybe I could also get that job? n
Music / Review
2016’s Songs of Comfort The writer’s top three tracks for soul-healing
By Isabelle Tow 24 January 2017
2016 was a tumultuous year for the world, and similarly a tumultuous year personally. I achieved much, but also felt like I had died a little inside, especially because of the gruelling final year of university. The songs that saw me through the year provided a little comfort to my shrivelled prune of a soul during hard moments, and the selections shown here prove music’s magic and its amazing capacity to convey empathy and solace in times of personal and societal turmoil. The three tracks of personal worthy mention are “How are you true” by Cage the Elephant, “3am” by Honne and “Alaska” by Maggie Rogers. This review was inspired by The New Yorker’s ‘Three songs that pushed me through 2016’ in which Anna Petrusich shared her song picks of 2016 that she thought neatly embodied and encapsulated the musical trends of the year. Out of American alternative rock band Cage the Elephant’s fourth studio album Tell me I’m Pretty, the track “How are you true” featured on my ‘Golist’ for much of the year. I remember crying upon the first listen, from the initial sadness, and then the warm relief after – relief at having found the song, for a cathartic song that speaks to you is a song for keeps. The opening strokes on the acoustic guitar stir a leaden, almost suffocating sadness that is disproportionate to its airy strumming. Lead singer Matthew Schultz’s voice warbles as it trails off at the end of each line, which is accompanied by clean plucks of the bass that ground the poignant undercurrent of the song, countering the upbeat drumming that vainly attempt to lift the mood. It is a lonesome song, a song you would add into your playlist titled “Songs to cry through” – the playlist you return to on days when you allow yourself selfpity, for times you must break down in order to keep functioning the following day. And break down is exactly what you do when Schulz cries, ‘Oh no, no, don’t cry, oh no’. The song, but also the whole album, speaks of the agony of living, and really captures what Schulz had described as its inspiration, which he revealed in an interview with Music Times was depression, something Schulz himself can attest . This is perhaps why it struck a chord; this year had been a year of recovery from melancholia, and a series of fortuitous meetings with other sufferers have helped me along the road to healing. One had been Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the other has to be “How are you true”. The tears that well up now, as I replay the track, spring forth from a well of comfort and gratitude for this song’s Cage the Elephant’s fourth studio album existence. Honne released their full-length debut album, Warm on a Cold Night, at the beginning of the year after a string of EP releases in 2015 of tightly-composed catchy and very danceable tracks. The British R&B electronic duo, comprising Andy Clutterback and James Hatcher, have labelled their work “baby-making music”, and though that much is true - their songs are almost literally dripping in sensuality – their songs are, it is worth pointing out, not about sex. In a music industry where sex is endlessly peddled because “sex sells”, their distinct sound evokes a sensuality that is reined in a notch by carefully curated words, capturing the epitome of musical seduction. The listener gets hooked, because their appetite is whetted for what could be, instead of having lurid and gratuitous eroticism thrust in their face, which oftentimes spills into vulgar territory that has, regrettably, become the norm of mainstream music. Perhaps this is attributable to their British ‘stiff upper lip’, an endearing and original quality in a music industry dominated by hyper-sexuality.
A running theme in their songs is the guy courting the girl, and their lyrics are chock-full of his irresistible promises to her. In the track “3am”, Andy croons enticingly, ‘we could be getting frisky girl till three o’clock in the morning’. “3am” is a characteristically Honne song, and contains all of their usual elements – the lush vibe created by their use of synths, the druggy beat and cool instrumentation. The sound of diving into and the emergent panting out of water provides a mid-song aural point of interest, a not-unwelcome effect to jazz the line, ‘cos your eyes are like an ocean I can dive straight into that’. Honne: James Hatcher and Andy Clutterback 2016 was the break-out year for Maggie Rogers, and “Alaska” was the track that lifted her out of anonymity. The video that documents the awe singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams was struck by when Rogers first played the track to him during a NYU masterclass has become an essential introduction to her music. That Pharrell’s creds lent her a helping hand is definite, but “Alaska” is still an amazing track on its own, something I feel that reviewers have generally shortchanged her for. Petrusich’s New Yorker review was basically commentary on that viral video of Pharrell’s virgin listen of Rogers’ track, where she does an analytical reading of his facial expressions that display his growing glowing appreciation of Rogers’ musical creation. Her song deserves more attention than the celebrity endorsement it has been paid with. The song opens with an upbeat first verse, which in her music video is played up by the jaunty walk that she does towards the camera. But then it quickly softens into the pre-chorus, as she tells of walking off an old lover, of a past relationship. And as she sings of shaking off all the excesses and coming back to her essence, the song climaxes to this breathy, delicate chorus that Maggie’s falsetto fleshes out masterfully. The instrumentation used calls to mind (at least in mine) an image of a snowflake as it spins towards earth, and the listener is compelled to close their eyes and stretch a hand out to do a finger dance in the air. The chorus is nothing but pure heaven to hear. Her song writing abilities are also laudable, and “Alaska” was composed with a certain feisty flair that appears to capture a fragment of Rogers’ personality. Perhaps this song panders to my biases because it contains so many things that I find personally endearing: the imagery of wintry Alaskan landscapes, and the language used to describe said landscapes; the whole chorus on breathing, and this air of untouchability it evokes when she says, ‘Leave me be I’m exhaling’, which Maggie Rogers in a scene of “Alaska”’s MV speaks simply of her sublime unflappable present state. 2016 was a year to confront and beat back at personal demons, much like how Harry had practiced the Patronus charm to repel the Dementor-boggart in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A lot of the time it was a difficult and a lonely journey to becoming more resilient, but music lent a helping hand in pushing me forward. The three songs represent my opioid concoction for the ears and the soul in 2016 – thanks to them I endured the year. n
Photo Credits: Amazon, DIY mag, Billboard
The Dark Art - Singaporeâ€™s dealings in the opaque art economy The Bouvier Affair is a harbinger of more art scandals in the region By Isabelle Tow 9 February 2017
In 2015, a US$1 billion legal suit was filed against Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier for fraud in the Singapore High Court by Russian fertiliser tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev. Apart from the fact that the legal battle will ensue in the city-state, Singapore’s role had also been considerable in the play out of what is now known as ‘The Bouvier Affair’. Bouvier became a Singapore permanent resident after setting up a free port, by far his largest, Singapore Freeport – a high-tech, high-security, luxury storage facility – in the premises of Changi Airport in 2010, where a number of art works he had sold to Rybolovlev were kept. The high-profile case had cast a not-entirely wholesome spotlight onto Singapore, which proved rather ironic for a security-conscious country known to be in constant upkeep of its squeaky-clean public image. When the Singapore Freeport was first opened in 2010, international observers like those at The Economist called it a part of Singapore’s strategy to becoming the “Switzerland of the East”, a moniker likening us to the European country from which freeports originated, and its reputation as a haven for the ultra-rich. To be fair, the label is not completely undeserved. The establishment of the Freeport was a deliberate undertaking in the third phase of the city-state’s arts and cultural masterplan, the Renaissance City Plan (RCP), which was first implemented in 2000. The government’s cultivation of its local art scene has been done in the name of realizing its grand vision in becoming a ‘Distinctive Global City of Culture and the Arts’. The Singapore Freeport is indicative especially of an important demographic the state has been trying to attract in grooming its cultural infrastructure. In the 2008 RCP Phase III report published by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), other than Singaporeans and foreign talent, high net worth individuals (HNWIs) were identified as the key third group that the vision in becoming a global arts hub was endeavoured to attract. In a press release jointly issued by MICA, the National Arts Council (NAC) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) that same year, the idea of free ports or storage facilities for art works was identified as one of the supporting services targeted to cultivate ‘a total ecosystem’ for the arts scene to truly flourish. This objective had been reiterated in Senior Minister for Trade and Industry and Education S. Iswaran’s speech that he delivered at the official opening of Singapore Freeport in 2010 – an event that Bouvier, in his distinguished position as Chairman of the facility, had attended. The establishment of the Freeport represented a win-win scenario for both host and its customers: in its allowance to lessees “to store and trade their high-value collections”, the presence of the Freeport reflected the economic potential to spur related supporting services like specialised logistics, art consultancies and conservation. The establishment of Singapore Freeport had therefore been a calculated move on the part of the government, which aligned with the dual aims to make the country appealing to both its residents, but also in attracting international talent. However, the scandal represented Singapore’s exposure to those risks that the opaque and largely unregulated art market has tolerated under its nose, such as money laundering and terrorist financing. The Singapore government’s attempts to mitigate these risks have been relooked and bolstered since the scandal. Singapore Customs responded with the Zero-GST Warehouse Scheme they implemented in October 2015, which identified art works as one of four categories of goods especially vulnerable to money laundering and terrorism financing risks. Customers who deposit art works are now subject to screening, in which crucial information such as value of the art work, identities of the customer and those who control the art works are obtained by Singapore Customs. This response had been uncannily timely, having been rolled out the same year Rybolovlev filed his suit in Singapore. The scheme directly responds to the 2013 National Risk Assessment conducted by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), which identified sectors with high money laundering and terrorism financing risk, in which the Singapore Freeport was mentioned briefly as a risk area for ‘further study’. The efficacy of this scheme will depend heavily on Customs’ and the government’s dedication to rigorous oversight. In 2015, Asia-Pacific surpassed North America as the region with the most number of high net-worth individuals, totalling a collective wealth of US$17.4 trillion, and these individuals are spending a larger proportion of their wealth on Investments of Pleasure (IoPs) such as art. This will only mean storage facilities like Singapore Freeport will become increasingly in demand and the oversight of its operations more relevant and imperative in mitigating not only scandalous but also criminal activities committed through the art market. n 7