Temasek Holdings

Jason Dasey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am


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Costing less than S$2 (HK$11), the journey on the 170 public bus will take you from the northern tip of Singapore over the one-kilometre causeway to the Malaysian town of Johor Bahru. And for sports lovers wanting to avoid forking out steep TV subscription fees to tune into the Fifa World Cup, it could be money well spent.

Outraged football fans are looking at alternative ways of watching the 64 games from South Africa: from attending public viewing parties at community centres and McDonald's outlets, to illegally directing their antennae towards Indonesian free-to-air channels, to making a daily hop over the nearest border.

'I believe some people will go [to Malaysia] for the matches as it's also a good trip to get shopping done,' said John Chua, spokesman for a protest group on social networking site Facebook. 'Singapore fans are very passionate about football, but we don't wish to support greed over fair play and integrity.'

The duty of broadcasting World Cup matches in the city state will be shared by rival cable providers, SingTel and StarHub. Existing customers who missed the early-bird discount will have to pay S$94.16 while the cost to new subscribers ranges from S$147 to S$180, making Singapore possibly the most expensive place in Asia to watch the quadrennial tournament.

Chua is one of the organisers of 'Mass Boycott StarHub/SingTel Overpriced World Cup Package', which has attracted more than 26,000 Facebook members in just over three weeks. The group is encouraging members to not only refuse to subscribe to the World Cup package, but to place an indefinite ban on all brands related to the two telecommunications giants.

Members voiced their displeasure at a rally over the weekend - a 'peaceful demonstration' for which a permit was diligently acquired through Singapore's National Parks Board - at Speaker's Corner near the city's financial district.

The frustration of many Singaporeans mirrors that of football fans in Hong Kong who will need to subscribe to i-Cable to get full World Cup coverage. The opening match, semi-finals and final will be shown on TVB and ATV, but only on one of their digital channels, which the majority of households don't have.

For a long time, it appeared that Singapore might miss out altogether on the planet's top sporting event. It was one of the last nations to secure its TV deal - confirmed only in early May - after months of wrangling with Fifa. The sport's governing body rejected joint bids for the rights in favour of separate non-exclusive agreements.

SingTel and StarHub reportedly paid US$15 million for the World Cup, although they declined to disclose any amount because of confidentiality agreements.

'SingTel and StarHub worked very closely together to make all 64 World Cup matches available at a reasonable price,' said an official statement released by the two companies.

'We have shared as many costs between us as we could in order to keep the cost to the fans as minimal as possible. We are not profiteering from the World Cup - in fact, all we are hoping for is to break even.'

Yet that doesn't satisfy Chua and the other members of the Facebook protest group, whose personalised T-shirts show a referee's red card with the words: 'You're Off! SingTel, StarHub'. Singaporeans are known to be among the most law-abiding citizens in Asia, but some say they've been pushed over the edge by having to pay up to seven times more than they did for the 2006 World Cup. They're also disappointed that the country's regulatory body - the Media Development Authority, which collects an annual S$110 TV licence fee - has not intervened.

'I feel that the issue is in the hearts of Singaporeans,' Chua said. 'There are pent-up frustrations that have accumulated through years of silence with organisations that seemed to have taken us for granted or failed in their roles.'

With the cost of sports' TV rights increasing every year, even in times of economic downturn, there's a fine balancing act for broadcasters to generate profits while keeping consumers happy. Making things even trickier is the fact that the deal was confirmed less than five weeks before the opening game from South Africa, leaving little time to attract advertising and sponsorship to offset costs.

Yet not helping the public mood in Singapore was the news in the same week of the TV deal being finalised last month that SingTel posted a 12 per cent increase in fourth-quarter profit to S$1.02 billion. The fans believe they are paying too much because of SingTel's 'over-bidding' for the rights for the Premier League, a competition they are also planning to avoid subscribing to.

'People might be turned off by the over-commercialisation of the game and see the World Cup as what it has now become: a money-making event rather than a sporting and cultural event,' Chua said. 'We're celebrating the fact that we have found one united voice as consumers, regardless of club affinity or jersey colour. And an affirmation of our choice to say 'No' as consumers.'