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The Straits Times interviews Lim Kim San

The Straits Times: What do you think are the key factors that account for the success and endurance of The Straits Times?

Lim Kim San: I think the main factor is that The Straits Times has been able to fill the need of the English-educated here for news. And as English education spread, you grew.

In the early days, you had people who were really dedicated journalists. They knew nothing about the business side of it, but they had a few backers to help them. But later on, you were able to have good journalists and at the same time good managers with business acumen, so you could provide information, news, views, at a profit.

You were able to do it much better than the others. That's why you survived.

ST: Are you satisfied with how the ST has adjusted to becoming a Singaporean paper from starting out as a colonial paper? Is that struggle basically over?

Lim: It took The Straits Times a long time to realise that it must present events from the local point of view. But the ST has been able to adapt itself.

I don't think any paper is fully Singaporean. You have the Chinese paper representing the Chinese-educated point of view, the English papers representing the English-educated point of view. But I think now there's a good working basis between us and the Government. We understand their parameters and they understand our difficulties.

One of our jobs is to support a good government, and we've been doing that, and helping to explain government policies. And from time to time, although the public doesn't think so, we do take a stand.

ST: Can the gap between the Chinese-educated and the English-educated be narrowed?

Lim: It takes time. Even if everyone knows English, I doubt that people will have the same outlook, because their religion and race remain different. Even now, The Straits Times' views are quite different from the Chinese papers'. But I think the combined SPH editors' meetings have helped to bridge the differences in views and sensibilities.

Ultimately, I think, there will be a common interest which will motivate all the newspapers for the good of Singapore.

But there will be various sensitivities which you cannot overcome. And that is the reason why we have to work within the confines of certain parameters.

You can talk about freedom of the press, but freedom carries with it responsibilities.

ST: When you came in as executive chairman of Singapore Press Holdings group, what did you see as the main challenge?

Lim: The group was a merger between different papers, each with people of different outlooks.

I could see that you were all not working together. When you had trouble with the printing, you were not trying to solve the problem, you were just scolding each other.

On The Straits Times side, you had been making much more money than the others, so you had a superiority complex.

Added to it was the fact that you were five or six companies. This showed even in the way you kept accounts: five different companies, five different ways of presenting accounts. And different newspapers were fighting for the same niche.

So there was no synergy. And the problem then was how to coordinate.

And after that the problem was to see that journalists understood the bottom line. The journalist felt that he was in a class by himself, that money was no consideration. It had to be driven home that money is an important consideration.

ST: In a sense, the journalists are the stars of the paper, but the newspaper business is much more complicated that that, isn't it?

Lim: Oh, of course. I think marketing by itself is a big job. Remember, you had different teams from different newspapers going around selling advertisements.

And I would hate, if I were an advertiser, to have seven representatives from seven newspapers coming to see me.

So we have rearranged things so that it is done by advertisers or agencies. It's a new format of selling, with marketing representatives who are really specialists in media.

Another major improvement was the introduction of information technology. Computerisation in the newspapers have boosted productivity. And it prepares us for the multimedia age.

ST: How can the ST respond to the multimedia revolution?

Lim: The Straits Times all along has been using the written word as the medium. Now, that is being changed, and you must be part of the multimedia system.

We've seen in the West that newspaper circulation has fallen, advertisements have found their way into other media, and revenue has fallen. The board has looked into this.

I'm not an expert in communications so I won't be able to tell you how it will develop.

One thing you know is that it is taking off. Our job is to position ourselves so that we will be there when it really takes off.

So we have gone into the mobile phone business, we have gone recently into Internet, and we have gone into cable television.

There will be many changes within SPH as a result. We have to form a strong team so that nobody is indispensable. It's a question of getting new, more vigorous and clever, young people.

The SPH newspapers are on the right path. But there are so many demands in the modern age for people's attention, so I think newspapers will not occupy the prominent position they used to.

Newspapers will still be the core business but we have to look into all these new media in order to maintain our profitability and our position as the chief reporting media, either through the written word, through TV, the phone, or via satellite.

ST: How similar or different is managing a newspaper business, compared with your previous roles in Government?

Lim: Well, as a minister you deal more with policy. In SPH, I'm also involved in administration and reorganisation. But, by and large, in running any large organisation, it's a question of having an understanding of its objectives, and man-management, isn't it?

To be able to listen to a specialist, and various views, and then to come to a common-sense decision.

If a man is a specialist, I will interfere only when I see he is departing from the company's policy or objectives.

Never interfere with an expert in his work. You listen to him, listen to other experts, and if they can come to a decision, well and good; if not, then you make the decision.

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