The A-Zs that rocked 2021: Indie takedown

Naiise founder Dennis Tay (left) and BooksActually founder Kenny Leck. PHOTOS: THE BUSINESS TIMES FILE

SINGAPORE - Perhaps 2021 will go down in history as the year of accountability.

Amid the barrage of stories about the virus, Singaporeans were diverted by multi- chaptered sagas on company takedowns from the inside.

Talk of bad bosses and alleged shady dealings dominated headlines this year, as disgruntled ex-employees decided enough was enough.

The one thing they all had in common? They were home-grown, independent brands formerly revered in their respective industries for championing local talent - and once viewed as the cool, fun workplace.

Multi-label retailer Naiise, bookstore BooksActually and YouTube channel Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) were the three biggest casualties.

After announcing in April that he would be liquidating the company and filing for personal bankruptcy, Naiise founder Dennis Tay was hit with accusations from suppliers and vendors about poor management and missing or delayed payments.

Many small brand owners, owed sums from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands, took to social media to vent their frustrations, with some alleging that problems with Mr Tay had begun as early as 2016. Naiise made a muted comeback online in early September after being acquired for an undisclosed amount by the WestStar Group.

Later that month, BooksActually, once a beacon of the local literary community, unravelled after an explosive article from digital news site Rice Media about co-founder Kenny Leck. In the article, Mr Leck's ex-wife, Ms Renee Ting, and former employees alleged he had made romantic advances towards young female staff.

The saga prompted many in the literary community to distance themselves from the bookstore.

Mr Leck said he would step down from both BooksActually and its publishing arm Math Paper Press.

Wrapping up the year was NOC's bitter feud between its co-founders and former spouses Sylvia Chan and Ryan Tan.

It started with a few leaked WhatsApp screenshots and audio recordings of Ms Chan speaking harshly of a former employee, bringing attention to a "toxic" work environment.

What ensued was a back-and-forth saga with multiple parties chiming in - the former employee speaking out, other former NOC talents recounting a negative work culture, Ms Chan hitting back at the claims and later implicating Mr Tan in a tell-all interview with local blogger Xiaxue, and Mr Tan sharing his side of the story.

Things took a personal turn, and some of the allegations against Ms Chan had legal implications, ranging from alleged misappropriation of company funds to get permanent-resident status for her brother, a Malaysian, to allegedly prostituting talents in exchange for free logistics services.

In the cases of Naiise and NOC, vigilante justice reigned. Anonymous blogs were created by past and current employees to detail claims of delayed payments and poor management. Juicy screenshots were shared and "receipts" (modern-day slang for evidence) produced.

These were circulated through online forums and chat groups, stoking the flames of controversy and leaving curious Singaporeans to be judge, jury and executioner.

It seems to be no coincidence that all the sagas were David and Goliath tales, with underdogs rallying together to take down local, well-loved institutions. The various incidents have called into question their lack of corporate governance structures and the pitfalls of having prominent figures at the top.

If there is one takeaway, perhaps it is to hold onto your receipts and screenshots. Questionable behaviour that goes unchecked will one day see the light of day.

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