Insider tale of Sembawang Media’s demise

Like most people, I’m all ears (and eyes) when it comes to insider accounts about famous people and corporations.

So it was with some lip-licking glee that I read a 7-part account of an American Internet pioneer’s ups and downs while working at a start-up of Sembawang Media (subsidiary of Sembawang Corp) some 13 years ago.

It was a serendipitous stumble upon on the web this afternoon, when one link led to another and voila, I was reading a ringside story of what happened to SembMedia’s attempt to develop Games on Line.

The writer, William Moss (now based in Beijing), named names, including Philip Yeo, Jek Kian Jin (son of former Cabinet Minister Jek Yoon Tong), EDB, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Institute of System Science, Pacific Internet and nearly every big name, or small, connected with Singapore’s short Internet history.

While there was rancour and self indulgence,  Moss also made a real attempt to be fair and honest. Worthwhile reading for anyone interested in how Singapore developed its web tentacles and how those ambitions often out-ran capabilities available in the country, whether home-grown or foreign hired.

For the full blow-by-blow account, go here

Below is an extract from Part 7.

This may have a ring of “I told you so” pettiness about it, but, in truth, neither Joe nor I was surprised by Sembawang Media’s turn of bad fortune. Joe and I had been scholars of the Internet business back in the States long before we moved to Singapore, and we’d seen the cycle of flush growth and shakeout that had claimed so many companies in the US.

Now we got to see that same cycle repeat itself in Singapore, and we got to watch Sembawang Corp make many of the mistakes that destroyed companies in the States.

Sembawang Corporation bet large on the emergence of the Internet as a source of revenue before the true value of the Net as a commercial commodity was established. Sembawang Media was to be the tool of SembCorp’s emergence as a regional information technology power.

But the company spent money like success was assured before they’d even started, renting extremely expensive office space at Boat Quay for the headquarters, and equally pricey digs for Contact at Suntec City.

A great deal was riding on the creation of Web content, and Multimedia Studios was a very slick operation with talented people and good equipment. But it started large, and it was high overhead operation in low margin business.

Personally I have always felt that talented kids working out of their parents’ basement do best web design. Give me one good HTML/Shockwave page design person, one good Java/Database programmer, and a Photoshop wiz, and I’ll cough up whatever content and functionality you want.

We also worried about Contact, well before problems began. The Singapore market was small, and, to our way of thinking, Singapore Telecom was holding all of the infrastructure cards in a regulated market.

Contact should have worked its way up, rather than starting large and banking on success. Even the creation of Games Online was a questionable business decision. Game development is a long-term, expensive proposition, and there is a good deal of risk involved.

I don’t want to argue against our own creation, but SembMedia should have started as a stripped down company and run that way for two years while the realities of the market were established. But in image-conscious Singapore it was built from the beginning to be a showpiece. Now, as it comes apart, it is a highly visible catastrophe.


15 thoughts on “Insider tale of Sembawang Media’s demise

  1. Thanks for the link, Lucy. Rancour and self-indulgence indeed! It was written in the emotional heat of the moment. Of course, the moment lasted a year and a half. For anyone tempted to go and read it, a couple of other points I’d make:

    First, I don’t hate Singapore, as some readers of that journal seem to believe. In fact, although I’ve been in China for the last six years, I’m still a Singapore PR, my wife is Singaporean, and my son has both US and Singapore citizenship (at least for now). I was there for nearly eight years after the GOL/SembMedia adventure ended.

    Second, I still have a lot of respect for many of the people at Sembmedia (and am still in touch with some), and for all of the staff of GOL. Both SembMedia and GOL were worthy if somewhat misguided efforts.

    Third, and most important, I was at that stage of my life a completely clueless idiot. That’s something any reader should bear in mind.

    Thanks again.

  2. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 29 Apr 2010

  3. They should have done it the brotherhood way. Spent nothing. Get us all to work for free like slaves. Insult us all. Take our stuff and still give us all more work. If it fails we all get blamed. If it succeeds some brotherhood gets all the credit. Then they pay you their own money in their own currency that only allows you to buy the useless stuff you don’t need or can get at one tenth of the price elsewhere. Perfect con job. By perfect scam artist. Powered by the largest online mafia underground outfit

  4. Will, tks fr yr quick response after being alerted by WP’s incoming links!

    Should I add hypersensitive to rancour and self-indulgence? Just kidding. 😀 Do note that I had also said that you try to be fair n honest as well.

    As for hating SG, whoever implied tt? Not me. In fact wot you wrote 13 yrs ago looks quite middle class — and grounded in facts –where I can verify, at least — compared to the rabid attacks on SG anywhere wants to look on the Net. Try Escape fm Paradise, fr instance.

    One last point: being a SG PR, married to a SGrean or even being a full fledged citizen doesn’t preclude one fm hating SG. Hence a non sequitor.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your story. Hope you will find a publisher. If easier, put it as a stand alone so pple can download it as an e-book?

  5. Sori, Wormie, not sure what you mean with yr cryptic comment. If anyone fm the brotherhood knows and chances upon this, can pse enlighten your Auntie?

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  7. What wormy is saying is there are those who play the game and those who play the game within the game. The people he is referring too happen to be the latter. This is how they operate. Since every game has a local economy. These people will raid it. They are not so different from currency traders and those crooked bankers who sell toxic instruments. Only instead of using real money to buy real materials. They use virtual money to buy imaginary commodities. Usually when these attacks are mounted against the game master. They are powerless to stop it. As the attacks are highly organized, coordinated and sustained. And by this stage, since either one or more commodities have been cornered. The populace in the game will begin forming multi tiers of buyers and sellers. These are known as the guilds. Some of the guilds are so big. You can even be part of one and not even realize it. As for the brotherhood. They go by nearly 300 over names in the virtual. They are supposed to be the ones who control all this. According to rumors there are not many of them and it is not known how so few can control the Guilds. There are many accounts. Some are lies. Others closer to childish fairytales. But I don’t believe you will ever find out the truth. As their security is so tight. You can even spy on them for years and you will never be able to even see the full picture. Super computers are involved here. They also know how to tap top talent. And for some reason they inspire fear and fascination in every gaming platform. Some even say the smaller gaming platforms are beholden to them. As they have so much power they can even hold the game master hostage by threatening to run up or down a particular commodity thus spoiling the economy within the game. Thereby ruining it completely.

    Not people to mess around with unless you want to lose your spleen. Not very united either. As within the brotherhood they are well known to quarrel amongst themselves. However, what makes them so effective is when faced with a common enemy. They will unite under one leader. Thats all. I hope it helps for what its worth.

  8. I think some heavy rewriting would be called for before this is ready for book prime time. I cringe quite a bit when I read it now. It was originally written for my friends and family back home.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that you thought I hated Singapore. That journal has got me a lot of mail from Singaporeans over the years. Many of them have been apologizing for Singapore being such an awful place that I had to go through something like that, etc. (Oddly, back in the nineties, I used to get many angry, defensive notes as well, but that doesn’t happen anymore, so make of that what you will. Maybe there’s just too much stuff on the web these days.)

    So I pre-emptively wanted to make it clear that, however else that journal should be interpreted, it should not be interpreted as condemnation of Singapore! Sensitive perhaps, but it’s a small place I don’t want to alienate any more people than I have to. As for the family, personally, if I hated Singapore, I wouldn’t have bothered with citizenship for the boy. Whether *he* will hate Singapore or not, well, that remains to be seen. Check with him after national service.

  9. Herald Tribunal: sori, u’ve lost Auntie there. I’m not an online gamer (other than SHG Dynasty mahjong 😀 )

    However, I’m leaving your explanation on Wormy’s behalf intact. Syntax wise, u both sound very alike 😉

    Visitors to this blog may find yr code phrases and references enlightening whereas for me it’s all LBK, leh, if u will pardon my Hokkein!

  10. If you think it is LBK. It doesnt mean it is LBK. GIC thinks citigroup and ubs is not LBK. Now go and look at how much the stock is worth and tell me whether it is LBK or not LBK.

    The internet is big enough for all. I am not a fan of the brotherhood personally. But I do not hate them either. I think they good work. We will still be killing each other if not for them. As for their online antics. Without them the game masters will squeeze us all dry. So I dont see them as leeches. If anything they balance the pH in the game. They restore balance.

    They may not be diplomatic. But they are fair. Not polite. But at least you know exactly where you stand with them. And they dont ever flip flop. Otherwise how can you explain why so many do not believe they are LBK, except perhaps people who have absolutely no idea of online gaming. In which case you would really need to ask, then why even bother to post this and solicit for feedback. If all you are really interested to do is to throw insults and give yourself a holiday from your own skin?

  11. btw there is nothing coded here. A simpler explanation auntie is this. You just dont get it.

  12. Hi Will,

    No heavy re-writing of your S’pore stint, pse. Wot I found interesting/unput-downable was its immediacy and stream of consciousness quality of yr S’pore ad/misad-ventures. I particularly like that Netscape shrink wrap aside. How naive we/S’pore were.

    True, u don’t want to libel anyone but a disclaimer may do the trick: because it’s from yr viewpoint and limited knowledge/understanding etc… in any case, wotever happened at SembMedia, it wasn’t alone. U wld no doubt recall Singtel and Lycos 😀 😀

    No more angry response: as I said, yr account is at least sane and mostly fact-grounded compared to the angry and sometimes sick rantings against S’pore tt’s all the rage now. Many even make pple like mr brown n mr wang look PC!

    So, u’ve left BM. Wot next?

  13. Dear Immature, I still LBK. But never mind. U, Wormy and Herald Tribunal — u all write so similarly — obviously know what you are on abt. So I shall let yr remarks stand. Thanks for dropping by each one of u!

  14. I am the infamous Chris Teo mentioned by Will. If u don’t believe me

    1) Ask him which city and convention that Chris met him and Joe
    Answer Milaukee and Gamecon. Please forward message to him.
    We need to go for a beer. It been a while since we met for lunch when u left Silkroute for the PR company.


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