Khaw Boon Wan says he doesn't know how to be a journalist, but has certain value-add

He was answering reporters' questions at a press conference.

Jane Zhang | May 13, 2021, 12:00 AM

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On Wednesday (May 12), the new chairman of the board of Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH) not-for-profit media entity SPH Media Trust Khaw Boon Wan spoke to SPH staff at a townhall about its future.

During a press conference held by Khaw with members of local media after the townhall, he acknowledged that he is "out of [his] depth" in terms of journalism, but stated that he intends to value-add to SPH how he can.

Back-and-forth about 2017 comments on media coverage of resignalling project

Khaw was asked by a Today reporter if he could respond to recent comments by people questioning whether he is "truly familiar with the tenets of journalism", referencing statements that Khaw had made in 2017 against local media's coverage of the MRT resignalling project.

In response, the former transport minister said:

"2017 was a memorable year. That was when the train crashed, is it? And then what — I blow my top, is it? I'm not one who blow[s] tops easily.

Can you refresh my memory? What happened in 2017?"

The Today reporter reminded him of his comments — he had said that resignalling was a "a very complex" task that media seemed to "think it's so easy... like holding a pen and writing a few articles".

Khaw responded saying:

"Really? I said so? That's quite original thinking, yeah."

He questioned the reporter what her question meant, and she clarified that she was asking Khaw what he thinks of the questions by a number of people about whether he is familiar with the tenets of journalism.

"I don't see the connection. You are saying, therefore I am anti-journalism or what?", Khaw inquired.

The Today reporter explained, "Maybe they think that you don't know how journalism works."

I am out of my depth but I know my purpose: Khaw

Khaw acknowledged, "I don't know how to be a journalist. I am not a journalist. I am out of my depth here."

Therefore, he asked, "How can I interfere with the newsroom, if I don't know what I'm talking about here?"

He stated that he knows his purpose for coming in, and that he has "certain value-add" that he is bringing into his role in SPH's media arm.

"I'll make sure that I deliver on what I can deliver."

Khaw said that his main contribution is to help SPH's media platforms reflect and reconstruct their products, in order to help them realise bigger potential and make the SPH media brand even better.

He said that he will leave the newsroom to Straits Times editor-in-chief Warren Fernandez, head of SPH's Chinese Media Group Lee Huay Leng, Berita Harian editor Mohd Saat Abdul Rahman, and Tamil Murasu editor Jawharilal Rajendran.

Khaw reiterated his anxiety with the acceptance of the chairmanship:

"I think I've explained that before — I'm not a media man and that's why I'm anxious. [...] My big worry was, 'What can I do to help you all?'

My coming here is to help SPH media. But if I cannot make a difference, then it's a waste of time and a missed opportunity, as somebody put it."

However, Khaw said that many SPH staff have tried to convince him that he will indeed make a difference.

Other questions on subscription fees, staff cuts

During the press conference, Khaw also fielded questions from media about a variety of other issues pertaining to SPH media's future.

The Today reporter asked whether SPH intends to continue with their current subscription model, and if so, how it would be explained to people who note that the new Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) would already be funded by taxpayers' money.

Khaw responded saying:

"If your objective is just to chase eyeballs, then the easiest is [to] make it free. But does mak[ing] it free serve the objective [...] [of] quality journalism, quality contents?"

However, Khaw purported that if the content is free, people will just take it.

"Are you sure they're reading it? Or they just read one line and throw it away?"

He said that having a subscription model places a higher pressure on SPH, so that they ensure that they are producing content that readers find valuable.

"This paid model forces us to make sure [we] are a lot more analytical, [with] deeper analysis and, more importantly, original insights, which I can't get from the competition."

Responding to a CNA reporter's question about whether SPH media will have staff cuts or restructuring, Khaw said that on the contrary, he plans to inject additional resources and investments into certain key departments.

"So, instead of talking about staff cuts and retrenchments, it is just the opposite."

Khaw also said, in response to a question by The Straits Times about what he sees as key to raising the standards of SPH's journalism, that he wants to use additional resources to "beef up" the news room, and to attract and retain talent.

"So pass the word around — if you have good writers out there who left us last year or recently, and they are good team workers, bring them back. I'll find money to pay them, so that we can enhance the newsroom."

Top photos via SPH and Google Maps.