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Taking Umbrage: The CEO’s Refusal To Bow To The Public

Updated: May 30, 2021

Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

The phrase “take umbrage at” has been a hot term circulating around the tongues of Singaporeans who keep up with Mothership news and video clips on Facebook, and has invited much discourse surrounding the specific issue of media censorship in Singapore.

What happened?

On Thursday, May 6 2021, CEO of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Ng Yat Chung attended a press conference held at SPH News Center regarding the restructuring of SPH’s business model into a non-profit entity.

In light of such a major change to the business model, journalists came forward with questions, in particular one from Channel NewsAsia. The journalist in question, Ms Chew Hui Min enquired about SPH’s “editorial integrity” following the restructuring.

“Does this mean that the media business will now pivot to emphasise editorial integrity, for example, ahead of advertiser interest?”

In response, Ng intercepted the microphone, announcing that he was offended by the CNA journalist’s question.

Ng deflected the question to other reporters present at the press conference, “There are reporters from here who received substantial funding from various sources, and I don't believe that you will describe yourself as bowing to the needs of advertisers in doing your job."

He then took on a harsher tone, emphasizing that advertisers were not new to the media outlet and that SPH has “never, never conceded” to their needs.

"The fact that you dare to question SPH titles for, in your words, conceding to advertisers, I take umbrage at that comment,” Ng said, pointing an accusatory finger at Chew.

Obviously upset, Ng snapped, “(SPH) Chairman (Lee Boon Yang) is a gentleman. I am not.”

Closing his answer, Ng said, "The purpose of doing this is to make sure that SPH media will continue to do the job we have done so well for so long."

The Aftermath of The Press Conference

Following TODAY’s publication of this incident at the press conference on its various social media platforms such as Facebook, Tik Tok and Twitter, thousands of comments from angry netizens flooded the post, many of which expressed negative sentiment towards his authoritarian attitude towards Chew.

Many expressed unhappiness towards his condescending tone towards Chew, and criticized his unnecessarily stern demeanour and unprofessional body language, which even drove one netizen, Jack Chng to create a petition demanding his dismissal by SPH.

On May 8, Ng has since released a public apology statement.

What’s The Issue?

An assortment of discussion about issues has come up, such as media censorship and classism.

Ng’s most striking line, "The fact that you dare to question SPH titles for, in your words, conceding to advertisers, I take umbrage at that comment,” is the biggest cause for discourse in this issue.

Netizens cited his visibly defensive demeanour when questioned on the goal of SPH’s restructuring and condescending tone as he talked down to the journalist.

Through his defensive and agitated tone and body language in his response to the CNA journalist, it was very clear to Singaporeans that Ng thought he could do no wrong, which formed the bulk of the reason for the backlash against him.

Ng’s words “the fact that you dare to question SPH” shows his stance that authority should not be questioned, or doubted, and ironically goes against the entire purpose of journalists and media outlets, whose job is to ask the difficult questions normal people cannot ask.

Journalists work to provide their audience with credible media reporting from all angles, but Ng has obstructed Chew from asking the hard questions, shutting her down in an attempt to discourage public questioning of a corporate giant which is responsible for information consumed by the whole country.

Additionally, Ng’s pointed tone and direct addressing of Chew veered his response into a public rebuke of her, which further played into the public’s authoritarian impression of him.

In a fit of displeasure, Ng had ruined his credibility as a CEO who is able to conduct himself professionally without shaming other professionals in the field who have different views.

Ng’s Non-Apology

On May 8 2021, Ng had released a public apology regarding his treatment of Chew’s question at the press conference via The Straits Times.

"I had stood up for SPH Media's long-cherished editorial integrity and will continue to do so. Being a direct and blunt-speaking person, I apologise for any offence I might have caused and regret any distraction from the merits of the proposed restructuring."

In his apology statement, Ng places the focus on SPH’s business legacy instead of his unprofessional remarks at the press conference, mentioning buzzwords like “SPH Media's long-cherished editorial integrity”, and “merits of the proposed restructuring”.

Ng failed to take responsibility for his words at the press conference, simply putting the blame on his “direct and blunt-speaking” nature, downplaying the severity of words into simply a personality flaw.

The CEO also used vague terms to qualify his behaviour at the press conference, simply saying, “I apologise for any offence I might have caused”, implying that there may, or may not have been offence caused and thus shirking responsibility from the fact that his words have in fact offended many.

All of these combined together create a non-apology for the masses, which communicates to us, our dissent is not important to Ng.

As the face of a national media organization, Ng has presented himself to the public as an authoritative figure who cannot take criticism and shuts down dissent. Dissent and discussion are absolutely essential for healthy discourse to occur towards progress, and Ng definitely has more opportunities to do better in time to come, provided that the petition started by Jack Chng doesn’t take effect.

Article written by Michelle Ang


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