SPH CEO's 'umbrage' sees flood of creative memes, merchandise and more online

SINGAPORE - Since the word was used at a press conference on Thursday (May 6), few would have missed encountering it. It was the top searched term on Google in Singapore that day, with over 200,000 looking it up.

"Umbrage", uttered by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) chief executive Ng Yat Chung at a press conference on the media company's restructuring, has trended on social media platforms, sparked numerous memes and merchandise, and influenced marketing efforts by popular brands.

Observers say the word is uncommon yet catchy enough to pique curiosity and thus be shared widely, fuelled by a hunger for social currency online.

The press conference on SPH's plans to transfer its media business to a not-for-profit entity saw the company explain how this would open up opportunities for it to seek funding from various sources with an interest in supporting quality journalism.

A reporter from Mediacorp's CNA Digital asked if the company "will now pivot to emphasise editorial integrity, for example, ahead of advertiser interests".

SPH chairman Lee Boon Yang replied he was confident that the editorial integrity SPH Media has had over the years will continue. "There will be no difference, that editorial integrity will take precedence. And I'm confident that... what I call the DNA of SPH Media will still be there and it will manifest itself. And rightly so because editorial integrity will have to come ahead of pure financial consideration," he said.

Mr Ng added: "There are reporters (from media outlets) here who receive substantial funding from various sources, and I don't believe that you would describe yourself as bowing to the needs of advertisers in doing your job. I will say, at least for SPH, we have always had advertising and we have never, never conceded to the needs of the advertisers. So we will always continue to provide fair, reliable, credible reporting."

Mr Ng then said: "The fact that you dare to question the SPH title for, in your words, 'conceding to the advertisers', I take umbrage in that comment."

Videos of the exchange were shared and circulated on social media and messaging platforms.

A clip on Facebook by one Lim Weixiang garnered over 4,200 reactions, 4,300 shares and 2,100 comments. It was posted at 6.18pm on the same day as the press conference, and led to spiking interest in Google searches for the term "umbrage".

Search interest in the term reached "peak popularity" at 8am the next morning, helped along by a satirical video by local blogger Lee Kin Mun, or mrbrown, posted at close to 2am.

The two-minute clip, which has garnered over 223,000 views and 6,600 reactions, is titled "Encik takes umbrage". It sees mrbrown assume the role of an encik, or warrant officer in the Singapore Armed Forces. Mr Ng was chief of defence force from 2003 to 2007, and retired with the rank of lieutenant-general.

Mr Ng told The Straits Times on Saturday: "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."

On Friday, local content creator Yeo Tze Hern, or Yeolo, created four memes on the topic, with his most popular post reaching over 5,200 likes on Instagram.

Popular forums like Hardwarezone and Reddit had threads dedicated to the word and its creative uses - including how Mr Ng's Wikipedia's entry was edited to include "umbrage" in his name. It has since been removed from the Wikipedia entry.

A Facebook group, Umbrage Singapore, was set up on Friday and has amassed over 500 members and 77 posts - mostly memes - in this short span of time.

Known brands like NTUC's Foodfare and Kopitiam, booking platforms Chope and Klook, and eateries Tim Ho Wan and Nando's also joined in with related social media posts and collaterals to market their offerings.


Known brands like NTUC's Foodfare and Kopitiam, booking platforms Chope and Klook also joined in with related social media posts. Kopitiam has since deleted their post. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM FACEBOOK

On e-commerce sites Shopee and Lazada, T-shirts, tote bags and mugs with "umbrage" designs have popped up. The company behind these, TJG Print, confirmed with The Straits Times it was a case of jumping on a trending word to appeal to customers.

Content creator Singaplex has also produced two different designs riffing on the word. "The idea came to us like a bolt of lighting and we just had to see it on a T-shirt," said co-founders Ken Tan and Jonathan Leong. Another T-shirt brand, Tee Hub, came up with its design after needing to Google the meaning of the word.

"The first 'auto-complete' option after 'umbr' was 'Umbro'. That was where I got the inspiration," said co-founder Denny Liew, referring to the English sportswear label. He said he did not expect to sell any T-shirts, but has received five orders so far.


T-shirt brand, Tee Hub, came up with its design after needing to Google the meaning of the word. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM FACEBOOK

Communications and new media lecturer Natalie Pang from the National University of Singapore noted the word was not something used in everyday vocabulary and hence was distinct and of interest. People were sharing content related to "umbrage" in a bid to provide access to what they perceived as novel knowledge, she added.

"People also perceived emotions attached to the message," said Dr Pang, explaining that this made it more likely to be transmitted further.

Communication and technology professor Lim Sun Sun from the Singapore University of Technology and Design said the word "captured the collective mood of the incident and the reactions it triggered".

"I think it took off as it did because many netizens took umbrage at the fact that he took umbrage at a not-unreasonable question being posed in an appropriate setting," she noted.

"We should be so glad that Singaporeans have strong opinions and tremendous creativity in using humour to express their views."