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Fudging numbers

This week: We learn that the only player in Singapore's print newspaper game inflated their circulation figures. 😵😵😵

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
5 min read

I was getting a little annoyed with my jet lag so I took a melatonin tablet the night before and conked out for 10 hours (only waking up briefly at 6am to feed my cats because they will not be denied). I did not expect melatonin to be so effective.


WTF was SPH doing?!

Wake Up Singapore had the story first, reporting “alleged discrepancies relating to circulation and/or subscription numbers” at Singapore Press Holdings. SPH Media — the not-for-profit entity that spun out of Singapore Press Holdings in 2021 — had to come out with its own report not long after, saying that several executives have been “taken to task”, or had to leave the company, after “issues linked to circulation numbers” were discovered.

What were these “issues”? Fraud lah. The company had inflated their daily average circulation figures across all their papers by about 10–15%. They counted lapsed contracts, double-counted some subscriptions, counted papers that they’d printed and then destroyed, and at one point even put in additional funding for a project to buy “fictitious circulation”.

First, some background for non-media industry people who might be wondering: circulation refers to the number of copies of a newspaper/magazine distributed. This includes subscribers, copies bought off-the-shelf at bookstores, newsstands or supermarkets, or even papers given away for free. For example, if a newspaper gave a mall or a café 50–100 copies to display and give out to customers, then those copies tend to also be counted in the circulation figures even if they aren’t actually all given out in the end. So literally, circulation as in how many papers are circulating out there in the wild. This is one metric that might be used to evaluate the popularity of a publication — for advertisers, it’s one data point that indicates how many eyeballs they might get if they buy space in the paper. Investors might also consider such information before deciding whether or not to buy shares or put money into the company. For the layperson, circulation could be an indicator of how widely read the paper could be, and could (for better or worse) influence how established or credible they think the publication is.

Another (more important) data point is readership. This refers to the number of readers that a paper has. The number is usually higher than the circulation figure, because one paper can be read by more than one person — for example, if your dad buys a paper and brings it home, multiple family members might read at least part of it. Similarly, a copy in a library or a café could actually have quite a lot of people flipping through it. And then you have your digital readers... it’s not a simple exercise to figure readership out.

If advertisers bought space in SPH papers based on their circulation numbers, they could sue the company for falsifying this data. But according to Teo Lay Lim, SPH Media’s CEO, circulation data is not used to determine SPH Media’s advertising packages — i.e. they don’t sell space in the paper based on circulation figures. She says that their “media rates and advertising packages are based on reach and readership of individual titles, and our SPH Media solutions as a whole.” This data, she says, is obtained and verified by independent third-party research agencies. (Question 🙋🏻‍♀️: would circulation figures not be a data point when determining reach?)

The Singapore stock exchange is reviewing this issue of inflated circulation. Before December 2021, these papers were published by Singapore Press Holdings, a private company listed on the SGX. If the fudged numbers happened during the period when the titles were under Singapore Press Holdings, then there could be a problem from SGX’s point of view.

This of course affects advertiser trust and confidence. But the revelation is making waves beyond advertisers because of these newspapers’ super outsized position in Singapore. The only player in Singapore’s print newspaper game inflated their circulation figures. What the hell. And these are the titles that the government is putting in up to $900 million of public money (over the next five years) to support. It’s no wonder that Singaporeans are concerned about what’s going on. And we still don’t really know what “taken to task” means — what exactly was done with the senior executives involved? (Another question 🙋🏻‍♀️: does this have anything to do with Warren Fernandez leaving SPH Media?)


National Service deaths

In response to a question by NCMP Hazel Poa, MINDEF has revealed that over the past two decades, 42 national servicemen have died due to their service. Fifty-two suffered "permanent disability to the brain, spinal cord, eyes or limbs due to serious service-related injuries". The rate isn't particularly high compared to the hundreds of thousands of men who serve every year, but it's still terrible loss and suffering to the individuals involved and their loved ones. And such information isn't easy to come by — why did an NCMP have to actually ask in Parliament before it was made public? Why aren't these figures published regularly? It's all part and parcel of keeping MINDEF and the military accountable.


Why is it so hard to let workers sit?

A previous issue of this newsletter talked about the issue of workers at Watsons not being able to sit down during their shifts. Workers Make Possible has now started an online petition in solidarity with the workers, urging Watsons to make it clear that there is a right to sit at all their outlets, provide appropriate chairs, and build in breaks so workers can rest.


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The rising cost of living affects all of us, regardless of age. More low-income families are struggling to put food on the table. It keeps them away from the doctor, and pushes them into further crisis.

While our ministers, mayors, billionaires and CEOs will manage just fine with their high salaries and the fortunes they have hoarded, ordinary people like you and I will have to hustle, scrimp, and scrape for every dollar to survive.

What does this struggle look like for the average person? Are these price hikes as unavoidable as the government says they are? Who benefits from them? Are the GST vouchers sufficient to make up for the rising cost of living? With the government announcing the 2023 Budget on 14th February, what can we, the citizens, do about this?

Sign up for this town hall on 29 January (Sunday) from 3–5pm at Orange & Teal (Rochester Mall). The event will start off with sharing by invited speakers, followed by an open forum with participants.

Checking in on the neighbours

I’m sorry to not be doing very well with this section — I’ve been out of touch with Southeast Asian news while away, and am only slowly trying to get back to it. I have been reading lots of stuff from the region because I’ve been editing Mekong Review’s upcoming February 2023 issue, but I can’t show you anything from that yet because *spoilers*!

That said, Human Rights Watch has published its latest World Report — check it out to find out more about the human rights situation around the world.


Got a copy of The Very Best of Mekong Review this week!

Thank you for reading this week! As always, please help me spread the word about this newsletter by sharing it widely.

Weekly Wraps

Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.


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