On Sunday night (Oct. 24), I watched an interview packed with heightened emotions, moments close to tears, and serious questions about the long-term future of an institution beloved by many Singaporeans.
I am of course referring to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's post-match interview. His Manchester United team was absolutely destroyed 5-0 by Liverpool at Old Trafford, and I was feeling on top of the world.
In the midst of my unrestrained glee and bouts of singing "Ole's at the wheel", I received a message from my boss.
"Are you seeing this??"
"Yeah, isn't it great? Solskjaer said the Mancs have hit rock bottom! He looks like he's about to cry!"
"Not the football! Xiaxue just dropped her one-on-one interview with Sylvia."
Sylvia, of course, was Sylvia Chan, CEO of Night Owl Cinematics (NOC), a recent centre of controversy and the subject of more social media furore than you could shake a stick at.
I went on YouTube and checked out the video. It clocked in at a mind-boggling one hour and forty seven minutes, slightly longer than the football match. Then I checked the work chat. Not only were my other teammates discussing it, but even my boss, who can't identify an influencer to save his life, had opted to watch it instead of the match.
"So you didn't watch the match?"
"No, everyone can see Manchester United are doomed. But this is something new."
With a sinking feeling, I realised what I had to do next. I'm not saying I would never watch the video, it just wouldn't be at the top of my list for things I would prefer to do for an hour and forty seven minutes. I'd rather put my hand in the torture device from "Dune" with a poisoned gom jabbar at my neck, ready to end my life if I so much as flinched, for example.
Still, if I didn't do it, I'd spend the next week being utterly clueless about what was going on.
Xiaxue/Chan is no Frost/Nixon but it was refreshing to see this in Singapore
The first hint of tension came early on when Xiaxue, in typical fashion, fired a salvo over Chan's alleged bullying ways:
"You know in all the meetings and stuff like that, it seems as if, there's this illusion rather, I don't know whether it's true or not, that you are the big boss of NOC, nobody can override you, you are sort of bullying everybody, you are slave-driving the employees, and Ryan has no say. And he is just trying his best to protect them, but he can't do anything. Is that true?"
Chan hesitated, taking some time before giving a reply. To be fair, it was a pointed, personal question.
"Chan: Which part do you want me to answer for this question?
Xiaxue: Well is it true that you're the big boss and you get to make the decisions?
Chan: (Deep breath) I would say, I would say right, that the roles are divided very very clearly, ok, and we all know who holds the real purse strings of the company, and who signs on the biggest thing, right. And it's not me."
Chan said she could reveal which of her "verticals" made money, but didn't provide specifics, instead using it as an illustration of her role within the company.
To her credit, Xiaxue didn't pull her punches, snarkily noting that Chan wasn't going into further detail, and then almost immediately following up with a tough question on the long hours supposedly experienced by NOC employees.
My estimation of Xiaxue went up after finishing the whole one hour and forty seven minutes.
She covered a lot of ground and posed a number of difficult questions.
Not really a Frost/Nixon but it was refreshing to watch, especially when most interviews of local newsmakers are done in a cordial and controlled manner.
When's the last time you remember an interviewee really getting grilled, having his/her feet put to the fire, and being made to feel uncomfortable?
Singaporean media traditionally eschews the confrontational style favoured by certain British news programmes, for instance. But that's not necessarily always a good thing. A good interviewer should be prepared to ask tough questions if it pertains to the topic. Singapore doesn't have a Jeremy Paxman, but we could do with someone like him.
Does a Good Cop, Bad Cop routine work?
As the interview wore on, Chan gave a peek into the inner workings of the company.
What piqued my interest was her description of her role as so-called "Bad Cop" within NOC.
Her description of the media industry sounded familiar --
"Chan: Honestly I can tell you the truth. I feel that it is very unfair that they're blaming me, because my job is to ensure that you submit. I don't do the operations.
Xiaxue: But do you give very unrealistic timelines to people then? I mean, it's your job to go and tell the client, cannot be done lah. It's ridiculous, my staff will be overworked like mad. So do you feel that that's your fault?
Chan: I feel there are jobs that sometimes is really very tight. And then there are jobs, we also know there are seasons, when we are slacking around doing fun videos, because that season really no client. It's a give and a take, right? We all know when it's crunch time, year end. Right? You know, this sort of time, you know what, it's crunch time what. And you know sometimes there's really nothing to do. It kind of seems it's a very one-sided way to look at the whole industry and the whole schedule of the whole year. Right? Because it makes it seem like the whole year is like this. And that's not true."
Later on, Chan directly addressed this, saying that she had turned into a person she didn't want to be. And she reacted strongly at times to protect her "Good Cop".
Now this might also be familiar to many working people. You might have played a similar role yourself. The idea is that the "Bad Cop" is the hard-nosed taskmaster, while the "Good Cop" motivates the team through positive reinforcement. This may work sometimes, with the caveat that the "Bad Cop" tends to bear the brunt of resentment.
Is this what happened at NOC? From an outsider's perspective, I can't say for sure. There are some things that Chan didn't address, such as whether it was her bad management in the first place that led to the projects running late, or whether she could have pushed back against the clients more to give her staff more breathing room.
But I do commiserate with "Bad Cops" in general, at least the ones who don't go overboard. It's human nature to want to be loved, and it's easy to delegate away the harder task of instilling discipline.
And I'm not sure whether this Good Cop, Bad Cop routine is best for the corporate world these days. It is too emotionally taxing for all parties involved and runs the risk of setting up more problems.
It's someone else's dirty laundry but it's hard to look the other way
Chan also addressed the various allegations levied against her, as well as making some new claims of her own, from her ex-husband's relationships with NOC's talent, to the impact the negative publicity has had on the business, and her own personal and professional struggles.
However at one point, Xiaxue noted that it didn't start out this way. Two young people got married, started a business together, "the perfect love story". But it eventually broke down, with Chan saying she never had a "happy marriage."
Divorce is excruciating. According to a study done by Dartmouth, it is the second-highest ranked event on their "Life Change Index", just behind bereavement. Messy fights are par for the course.
But I cannot imagine the immense stress of having the details of one's divorce made public, with every aspect of their lives picked over.
Chan also mentioned that because she was in the glare of the public eye, she felt like she had to keep up appearances for the sake of their image and brand. "Who wants to tell the whole world that my marriage is not working out?" she asked rhetorically at one point, a familiar sentiment in face-obsessed Singapore society.
In addition to intimate details, Xiaxue discussed the leak of chats and other conversations that Chan never thought would be made public. It's a stark reminder that in this digital age, one must assume that everything communicated is recorded, and liable for broadcast to the public completely shorn of context.
Who watches the Watchmen?
Once the video was over, to my surprise, I found myself wishing it had gone on even longer. There were even more questions I had, questions that need answering, as Gandalf once said.
But since the Xiaxue video was released, there have been noticeable developments from the original leak account, @sgcickenrice on Instagram.
Their posts were removed, save for one which says they are "voluntarily" not posting anything else about NOC, and that they hope all parties can solve this amicably and "move on".
The exposé blog endthesilencee on Blogspot, which made a number of allegations about Chan and referred to in the Xiaxue video, has also been removed.
Ryan Tan has denied working or being affiliated with either account, and responded to some of the claims made by Chan in her interview.
Legitimate whistleblowers exposing criminal behaviour have a place in society, especially if they have evidence to back up their claims. But allegations of a personal (not criminal) nature may be attempts to "poison the well" and manipulate public sentiment for their own ends.
I take no side in this dispute, but it strikes me that the people behind the blog and Instagram account, whoever they may be, acted with specific intent and intend to scurry off into the night, leaving a trail of wreckage behind with no apparent accountability.
There it might have stayed, if not for Xiaxue's discovery of who was behind the Instagram account, at least. The revelation and statement from the 20-year-old TikToker who previously met Xiaxue while on an NOC shoot, and hosts a podcast with a former NOC talent, made some things clear. But not all of it.
As there is apparently an ongoing legal dispute, according to Tan, and investigations conducted by the authorities, the full story may emerge one day. If and when it does, we just might be able to learn something from all this.
And that emotional interview, filled with hard-hitting questions and discussion of the leader's management style, may one day be looked back upon as a turning point for
Manchester United NOC.
Top image from Xiaxue and Manchester United's Youtube channels.
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