Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have a few clarifications for the Minister. Before that, I thank him for his Statement, which contained a lot of information or some information at least, that the public has heard for the first time today and here in the House.
I have a few questions.
First, when did the Government first inform SPH that it was prepared to extend grants to support its media business?
Secondly, what is the size of the funding that Government has pencilled yearly to support the SPH CLG? Does the Government aim to cap the grants it extends, with the expectation that CLG will also secure other sources of funding from the private sector, for example?
The third question is with respect to some public documents that were released by SPH last week. It was decided that the SPH contribution towards the CLG would be, I quote, “arrived at after considering various factors, including the potential funding requirements of the media business for a few years”. Does the Ministry consider this contribution to be a reasonable one and how did it come to this conclusion?
My final two questions: what structures will the Government insist on to ensure the independence of the SPH CLG from possible Government’s interference and to foster a culture of editorial independence across its titles? And, finally, in view of the significant change in the sector, would the Government consider the formation of a Select Committee to allow members of the public and Singaporeans in particular to: (a) express what editorial standards they expect from the CLG, taxpayer-funded mainstream media; and (b) to express their views on how best the SPH CLG can ensure editorial independence from any government of the day?
Mr S Iswaran: Sir, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his series of questions. They span a wide range of issues. I will attempt to give him a comprehensive response. But I imagine this is going to be further developed in subsequent clarifications.
First, on the issue of timing – when did we inform SPH that we were willing to fund SPH? As I said in my Statement, the Government has always taken the position that we are willing to support investments in capability development. And then, it is up to the respective organisations to develop their plan and to put forward their proposals to us. In the case of SPH, specifically, as I mentioned, last year, they received the JSS, which was part of the national scheme. In addition, we were prepared to offer extra help if it was required, but the restructuring proposal was put to us; which then, leads to the next question about other sources of funding and whether Government funding to the CLG will be capped.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I would say that it is premature to specify the exact numbers that will go in, with regard to the Government funding. The reason for this is not because we are reluctant to talk about them, but it is simply because, first, this is still a matter before the shareholders of SPH. They have to decide whether they want to approve this. It is only after that that we can really get into a more detailed discussion.
But it is not just about the shareholders’ approval. We also need the new CLG to then formulate its plans and put on the table what it sees as its strategic business direction, going forward; and in that matrix, the different sources of revenues that it expects or anticipates, and what role will the Government funding play in that matrix.
So, the question of whether other sources of funding would be required, if the Leader of the Opposition heard in my speech earlier, not-for-profit does not mean that the entity does not pursue its business on a commercial basis. We fully expect the entity to seek out advertising revenue, circulation or subscription revenue and other sources of funding. But we fully expect that Government funding will be a component of that funding matrix for the CLG.
He asked if the SPH contribution which has been spelt out – which includes the transfer of two property assets which are related to the media business and also some other operating businesses which are linked to the media, in addition to the $80 million of cash and $30 million of SPH shares and REITs – he asked whether this is reasonable and why. Again, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to stress that because this is a matter that has to be put to the shareholders at an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM), I do not want to pre-empt any case that the management and the Board will make.
But I can say that our focus, the Government’s focus, has been very clearly on the news media business and its viability, going forward. Whilst I am unable to say specifics about what the numbers look like in the near term – SPH has said some about how they think it will continue to widen in terms of its deficit – I can say that the medium- to long-term outlook remains challenging. And that is why we need to be clear that the Government will be prepared to come in to give support. But how much, how – I think these are the things that will need to be worked out in due course after the CLG has had the chance, subject to shareholders’ approval, to then develop a business plan and put the proposal to us.
The Member asked about structures for editorial independence or ensuring a culture of editorial independence. I would venture that that culture already exists in Singapore in the news media. I think we do a disservice to our journalists and editors to suggest anything to the contrary. In fact, if you look at the overall outcome that we have achieved over the years, it speaks to, not just from external sources that validate by recognising the accomplishments of our local news media but, importantly, and this has a bearing on the Leader of the Opposition’s last point on the Select Committee, because if I understand it correctly, it is about enabling people to express their views.
I would say Singaporeans have already expressed their views because, first, when it comes to trust surveys, Singapore scores highly. Singaporeans have been quick to point out that they trust our news media, both print and broadcast, and they have shared this. I cited the YouGov survey and also the Edelman Trust Report. I would add that even our local surveys, for example, by the IPS, validate this, saying that about 70% of Singaporeans, or seven out of 10, trust our local media. And that is at a higher level than the trust they accord to international media, I would add.
So, it is not just what they say though, it is also what they are doing. What are their habits, what are their preferences. In other words, how are they voting with, in this case, their eyeballs? The fact is, as I said, and I want to re-emphasise, the SPH news organisations, in aggregate, have not just maintained but they have grown their reach and readership, when you combine the digital and the physical. That would not be the case if Singaporeans did not feel that they could trust a news organisation.
So, I think the people have spoken and it is our job now to make sure that object of their trust continues to succeed.
Ministry of Communications and Information
10 May 2021