Lunch With Sumiko

‘My toughest assignment': Khaw Boon Wan on his new role as SPH Media Trust chairman

Mr Khaw Boon Wan came out of retirement to chair SPH Media Trust, which takes over the media operations of Singapore Press Holdings.

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Mr Khaw Boon Wan, chairman of SPH Media Trust, says his media assignment is going to be his toughest one yet. He sees his role as supporting and cheerleading the digital transformation of the newsrooms.

When Mr Khaw Boon Wan retired from 42 years of public service in June last year, he knew exactly how he would spend his days.

After sending two of his grandchildren to school, his mornings were devoted to taiji, brisk walking and spiritual development - chanting, meditating and reading Buddhist sutras.

Afternoons were set aside for the serious reading he had always wanted to do but didn't have the chance to, and the rest of the day was for the family.

He spent several months engrossed in tomes about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, for example, and immersed himself in a book about Egyptian archaeology and European colonialism.

He was "blissfully content" living what he describes as "the second cycle of my life".

There were many calls from friends and others for him to take on roles in various capacities, but he declined, preferring the quiet life.

In April this year, a request came that made him change his mind.

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), an SGX-listed media and property company which publishes the 176-year-old The Straits Times, among other titles, was planning to restructure its business.

Over the past few years, technological disruption had hit the bottom line of SPH's media division. Newspaper revenues were down and digital earnings could not make up the loss. Shareholders were getting restless about the declining share price.

To ensure the survival of the media, SPH proposed that its media side of the house be hived off into a company limited by guarantee (CLG), similar to the universities here, The Esplanade and Gardens by The Bay.

Such a set-up would allow profits to be reinvested into the media without the pressure to reward shareholders with dividends. This not-for-profit entity would also be able to get public and private funding, an option not open to a listed company.

In turn, SPH would be free of the legal constraints governing the media business, and pursue opportunities to maximise shareholder returns.

Former Cabinet minister Khaw Boon Wan sees his role as supporting and cheerleading the newsrooms in SPH Media Trust as they continue on their journey of digital transformation. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Mr Khaw, whose last portfolio was coordinating minister for infrastructure and minister for transport, was approached to head the CLG, to be named SPH Media Trust.

He wasn't keen at first. "My main consideration was whether I was up to the job," he says.

But he was finally persuaded, including by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whom he met for lunch. On May 10, it was announced that he would be chairman of the CLG.

On Sept 10, SPH shareholders voted overwhelmingly in favour of hiving off the media business. Details of the transfer are being sorted out and SPH Media Trust is set to be operational from December.

Mr Khaw, 68, says SPH's plan did not surprise him.

The disruption of traditional media had been discussed in the Cabinet over the past several years, he notes.

The Internet has led to a proliferation of sources of news, including freely available news, changing not just reading habits but also decimating traditional media revenue streams around the world.

"We knew the existing model was no longer fit for purpose. Serious quality journalism requires a more sustainable business model," he says of the Cabinet discussions.

"If you allow cost pressures to continue to shrink newsrooms, eventually you have a paper which is not worth buying or reading. Is that good for Singapore? The answer to us was quite clear."

The concern was the preservation of a quality Singapore media, by Singaporeans for Singaporeans.

"The critical role that local media plays in nation-building is clear. We cannot let SPH Media go into decline," he says.

"This is an important national institution. Can you imagine our children and grandchildren growing up consuming news solely from the US or Western-centric media? Or Middle East-centric media? Or media from our neighbours?" he says.

"I think every Singaporean will be concerned if we do not have our own media which is professional and objective, has high integrity, and knows what it is like to build a nation which requires people to be united."

'Boringly calm'

He has chosen to meet for breakfast at White Rose Cafe in York Hotel in Scotts Road. It is a favourite haunt as he likes its service.

I arrive 15 minutes early and nip into the toilet. When I return, he is already there.

ST Executive Editor Sumiko Tan and former Cabinet minister Khaw Boon Wan taking a selfie at White Rose Cafe in York Hotel on Sept 11, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Civil servants who have worked with him say he likes to arrive a good 15 minutes before the scheduled time of an appointment.

He was by many accounts a popular minister with public servants. While his manner is quiet and genial, his working style is decisive and brisk.

A civil servant describes him as a calm presence at work. She also remembers, with gratitude, how he didn't even chide her when she once made a bad mistake.

She shares a quirk of his: Whenever he twirls his right foot, it is a sign he is strategising his next move. Staff noticed this during Parliament sittings, too, when he was tackling tough questions.

He is known to dislike long meetings. "It wastes people's time," he says. "The worst are those huge groups sitting down for three, four hours and you know the attention of many of them is not there. They are looking at their tablet and doing their own things. My working style is via e-mails so that when we meet physically, we have already resolved most of the issues by then."

True enough, he requests that questions be e-mailed so he can reply before we meet. To save time, he also e-mails me his order - French toast, English breakfast tea and a platter of fruits. To make it easier for the cafe, I opt for the same.

Getting answers before an interview does make for a more efficient interview, I discover. But the downside is I find myself making more than the usual small talk as we still have to sit through the meal. I wonder if I'm trying his patience but if I am, he doesn't show it. He answers questions patiently and in so soft a voice I strain to hear him.

Given he is to be my new boss, I take the opportunity to ask about his working style. "I am open. I listen. I walk the ground. I go into the trenches with the workers. I eat humble pie," he says in the e-mail.

"I ask questions when I do not understand. I read, I consult. I have found this open consultative approach an effective way to bring about change and make a difference."

What makes you angry or happy at work? "I think I am boringly calm" is the (written) reply. "I display anger only when coaching the grandkids! But a lot of time, it is just drama, fake. Or when they don't listen!"

Three priorities

While he has kept the morning segment of his old routine, he has spent practically every weekday afternoon since May at News Centre in Toa Payoh meeting employees from across divisions, usually in small groups but also individually. He has met more than 300 people so far to find out the issues they are facing.

"They are the experts; they know their difficulties and pain points. They know the potential. They know how to catch up with the competition. They have valuable feedback and suggestions," he says.

He has brought in people outside the organisation to advise on SPH's digital transformation, including from the tech and start-up worlds. "I always believe in a multidisciplinary approach to problems."

ST Executive Editor Sumiko Tan and former Cabinet minister Khaw Boon Wan during a lunch interview at White Rose Cafe in York Hotel on Sept 11, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

He has set three immediate priorities for the CLG.

The first is to ensure a smooth transition during the handover.

The second is to ease pressures on the newsrooms. "I am told that cost-cutting has diminished their capacity somewhat, and our wage scales are no longer market competitive. These have affected their ability to retain talent."

Third will be to enhance customers' experience, and not just digital subscribers but internal customers like journalists. "Can we leverage technology to make their life easier? Enhance the work process... as efficiently and seamlessly as possible?"

He has made up his mind on some issues. A key one is to retain a paywall for its websites. Paying for content is the clearest indicator of quality and whether the content is serving the needs of readers, he believes, and this is crucial if public funds are involved.

The transformation of the media landscape is an ongoing one, he reminds me. In the 1990s, when he was principal private secretary to then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, he had witnessed satellite technology threatening traditional broadcast media.

"That was my first serious exposure to this strategic issue of media competition as a result of digital revolution."

The setting up of Singapore CableVision, where he was chairman from 1994 to 1999, and a ban on satellite dishes allowed Singaporeans to have access to quality international channels while at the same time exerted pressure on then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation - now Mediacorp - to quickly up its game. "Mediacorp did us proud. We achieved the national objective," he says.

"In many ways, the current SPH restructuring is Chapter 2 of this continuing saga of how to retain local audiences and not lose them to international broadcasters and publishers whose interests may not align with ours and, in fact, often may undermine our national interests," he says.

"And believe me, this is not the final chapter. The current exercise may buy us another decade. We must be prepared to be nimble, innovate, experiment and be constantly alive to the changes in the digital space."

He sees his role as this: "I hope to put SPH Media on firm financial footing, with a strong united team of talents from multiple disciplines, energised and inspired to work towards the long-term goal of making SPH Media a global brand of trusted, professional, ethical journalists, commentators and analysts with deep insight and strong Singapore values."

Toughest job yet

His media assignment comes after 22 years as a civil servant and nearly 20 as a politician.

"Civil servants can remain faceless, even nameless. I like that more," he says. "I was happiest when I was just a senior civil servant, senior enough to make a difference, and did not need to tell the world how I had improved their lives."

Born in Penang, he was the seventh of eight children. His parents ran a small business from home converting old newspapers into paper bags which they sold to provision shops.

After his A levels, he applied for scholarships and was offered a Colombo Plan scholarship by the Singapore Government. He studied engineering at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

His then girlfriend, whom he met in pre-university, was accepted into Singapore University to do pharmacy. They got married in Australia in his final year and settled in Singapore.

He spent 14 years in healthcare, implementing policies like MediSave and the restructuring of hospitals. After three years as principal private secretary to Mr Goh, he became permanent secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

In 2001, he was persuaded by Mr Goh to leave the civil service and contest the general election as a People's Action Party candidate.

As minister for national development, he successfully tackled the housing shortage. When he moved to transport, he solved the issue of MRT train breakdowns.

He's been given the moniker Mr Fix-it but doesn't like the label. "I'm thankful that people think positively about what I've done. I just did my best," he says. "But that label bothers me because past success or achievement never guarantees the future. Every assignment is different, every mission is different. If you allow complacency or overconfidence to seep in, you will almost certainly fail."

He describes his new role as his "toughest assignment".

"I spent many years in healthcare, so I was not daunted when then Minister Howe Yoon Chong asked me to lead on hospital restructuring," he says of his earlier career.

"Housing, I volunteered to do the job as I knew the problems on the ground and had clear ideas on how I could fix it. MRT was a bit scary but I understood the engineering problem. I was confident that given time, we could turn it around. With media, I am out of my depth."

But in the months since he said yes to the CLG job, he has plunged into understanding media.

At the many meetings he has had with staff, he has stressed teamwork, having a common purpose and a clear mission.

"We are a team and if we can pull together in the same direction, there are no problems that we cannot collectively solve," he says with quiet determination as we wrap up the meal. "My job is to support all of you and cheer you along."

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