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New Naratif notes the open letter written by former team members of the organisation.

Running a non-profit organisation is a difficult proposition in the best of times, but in the past few months, New Naratif faced a genuine financial crisis. We needed to make hard decisions. We also acknowledge that the restructure, which included adjusting job scopes and cutting salaries, affected some team members who had been with New Naratif for a long time and had helped build the company.

At the same time, the open letter is deliberately misleading. Documents left behind in one former team member’s work Google Drive conclusively demonstrate that some former team members acted in bad faith and have misrepresented events in an attempt to destabilise the organisation and instigate wider resistance to block the restructure.

1. The former team members acted in bad faith.

The documents clearly show that, in a series of discussions between 6-8 March 2022, four team members (who have since left) actively participated in planning to disrupt the ongoing process of restructuring. 

The first substantive draft of the restructure was only presented to team members on 14 March 2022. Thus the team members decided to resist the restructure even before they knew what it would entail, and sought to block it even before proper internal discussions could take place.

In these discussions, the team members discuss alternative organisational structures which would be more favourable to them. They speculate about appointing a second managing director. Another note outlines a disinformation campaign, presumably with the aim of forcing the Managing Director to withdraw his restructure proposals and appointing one of the former team members as his equal.

We note that the open letter makes no mention of these discussions, despite some of the participants being among the signatories. We are extremely disappointed in their behaviour, and at their continued efforts in public space to deliberately bring down New Naratif as a movement while professing to have its best interests at heart.

We also wish to clarify that we do not believe that every signatory to the open letter was part of the secret discussions, and that they may also have been misled by their colleagues.

2. Team members were aware of New Naratif’s financial situation.

New Naratif prides itself on having an open environment where everyone is given the space to express their thoughts. We practice a high level of internal transparency. To this end, every month in team meetings we share reports of how the company is doing, including financial reports. These reports include the exact amount in our bank account. We have a discussion about the direction of the organisation, performance metrics, the viability of the organisation, and its overall operations. Restructuring was first raised internally in December 2021 both within the management team and with each department, who were encouraged to develop their respective strategic plans to fulfil New Naratif’s vision, mission and values.

In particular, it was made clear to all team members from October 2021 that the company was facing declining revenues and would run into financial crisis at the end of March 2022 without a new source of revenue. Allegations made in the open letter, of non-management members of the team not being told about the financial difficulties even as late as mid-March, are completely untrue.

Management had plans to address the financial crisis with grants. However, the internal conflict prevented us from renewing existing grants or applying for new grants. Our financial situation was, in effect, held hostage. Our former team members claimed that they were not made aware of the organisational financial situation, but even after we reiterated the urgency of this crisis, the former team members continued to engage in brinkmanship over our financial position, focusing on the restructuring instead of the immediate survival of the organisation. 

Finally, the issue with billing was only discovered when a new member of management, who had taken over the membership portfolio in January 2022, began investigating the declining membership revenue and engagement. She flagged issues to our webhost, Newspack, who investigated and only confirmed the problem on 9 April 2022. Once these billing problems were discovered, we immediately made them known to the remaining team members. The matter is still being addressed by Newspack on an ongoing basis.

All team members’ contracts were formally terminated on 29 March 2022 and most of the former team members departed within the week, before the issue was confirmed. 

Thus, allegations that this membership billing issue was withheld from team members are untrue. 

3. Team members are treated well and fairly.

New Naratif has always sought to treat our team members well, including offering 40 total days of leave and holiday per year, fully remote work with flexible hours, an annual organisation-wide year-end break of 3 weeks, plus monthly therapy paid by New Naratif.

With the cash flow crisis, we looked likely to run out of cash at the end of March 2022. This crisis was, as noted above, precipitated by some team members acting to block the restructure. At the same time, we also wanted to be fair to everyone. In consultation with our legal advisor and company secretary, we offered the option for people who wanted to leave to take four weeks’ pay and immediately leave to look for another job. We believed this was the fairest path forward. 

To take any other path would mean that those team members would face uncertainty about their future. This path gave them clarity and the agency to choose their future.

In order to ensure that we had sufficient funds to pay everyone who decided to leave, we got a short term loan of GBP14,000 from our company secretary. 

Allegations that this was a form of retaliation are completely untrue. Every team member, including the management, was offered the exact same terms, and a majority of team members chose to stay on. If the former team members had chosen to stay, they would have been welcome to and could have participated in subsequent discussions on the restructuring.

To help us survive, the management team volunteered to take a pay cut and continues to work on this basis.

4. Team members had ample opportunity to participate in the restructuring discussion.

As noted above, the first draft was presented to team members on 14 March. Once we had sorted out our path forward through the cash flow crisis, the restructuring discussion continued. The process included several rounds of feedback with remaining team members, who had significant influence on the final proposal. Proposals from non-management team members have been accepted and incorporated into the final form. Plans for restructuring were completed on 22 April 2022 and are being implemented.

Furthermore, if the former team members had genuinely wanted to take part in the restructuring discussion in good faith, they could have opted to stay and take part in it. Instead, they tried to shut it down even before the first draft could be properly discussed, and chose to immediately leave when given the opportunity.

5. The restructure makes sense.

The former team members argued that the restructure proposals lacked clarity and rested on unproven assumptions. As noted above, some of them actively worked to disrupt the restructuring and never engaged with it in good faith.

Nor did they see the restructuring proposals in its final form. The restructure process was only completed on 22 April 2022, long after the former team members had left. Their open letter arrived before any public announcement had been made. 

What is the new structure? It can be boiled down to four principles:

1. New Naratif needs to have clearer lines of responsibility and better internal collaboration.

New Naratif exists to empower Southeast Asians to create positive democratic change. This process has three steps: engage our community, educate them with information, and empower them through our events and network. For us to fulfil our mission, all three steps need to occur in close collaboration. However, this was not happening. In the old structure, editorial dominated, and the structure disincentivised collaboration between departments. 

At the same time, both community building and events were being handled by the same department (Community). This meant that Community’s attention was not just divided between two critical areas, but also that they could not focus on the membership growth needed to keep New Naratif independent and sustainable. 

The old structure also lacked the internal capacity and resources to translate our editorial outputs into actionable pathways for Southeast Asians to create positive change. In short, the old structure prevented us from fulfilling our vision and mission. 

To this end, we are creating a new department, Civic Participation, whose main task will be to hold events online and in person, on important issues, with the active participation of local activists and those working on the ground who are most familiar with the issues. By doing so, our three core pillars of engaging, educating, and empowering will have dedicated departments to ensure that every aspect of our movement is represented equally within the organisation. Furthermore, the restructure aims to incentivise collaboration between the departments to ensure that we fully utilise our editorial outputs in our events.

2. New Naratif needs to hold more events, including in-person events, and fully utilise all the content we produce to engage and empower our members.

We have consistently heard from our members that they love our democracy classrooms. But we have not held any since December 2021, and we have not held any in-person events since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

With this new structure, we will be able to hold events that fully utilise all our editorial outputs on a regular and predictable basis, and members will be able to enjoy the events that they love so much.

3. New Naratif should produce information which is useful and relevant to its members, regardless of whether it is original news reporting.

Following on from the above, we believe that New Naratif needs to produce articles, across all formats and languages, which are useful and relevant to our members. Our news and feature articles may be excellent original reporting, but readership was low. According to our metrics and studies, the articles had little discernible real-world impact and engagement with our audience.

Instead, we agreed that we need to prioritise our articles being useful. This may mean, for example, more Explainers and curation, and less original reporting. This also means that these editorial outputs would then be useable in our events.

We are hiring our new Editorial Manager with this goal in mind. We will of course still continue to produce original evidence-based long-form stories that might otherwise never have been published anywhere else.

4. New Naratif should produce more research.

New Naratif’s research has readership and impact. Our research articles have an evergreen readership. The most read article on New Naratif, month after month, is The 28 Most Important Issues Facing Singapore, which was a product of the Citizens’ Agenda research project. Our work on Media Freedom in Southeast Asia has been recognised by fellow journalists, who have told us that our process of research also helps develop regional solidarity and common consciousness. Our research team does important research that makes a difference to Southeast Asia. 

As such, we will be expanding our research team, building an internal think tank that will focus on themes that are important to Southeast Asians, such as democratic participation, migration, and freedom of expression; and on countries or regions, such as Singapore, Borneo, or Papua.

These are the four principles of our restructuring. They are all based on our user surveys, membership data, and readership metrics. We have also consulted media and start-up experts here in Asia, who have expressed confidence in our restructuring plans and outputs.

Apart from the above, no other job scope has had any significant change.

Conclusion

In conclusion, hard evidence has been found that some team members did not engage with the restructuring in good faith, and instead secretly planned to instigate wider resistance to block the restructure. 

They have left facts out of their open letter, misrepresented the situation, and painted a misleading picture of events. New Naratif treats our team members well and prides ourselves on having an environment where anyone can speak up.

We have also moved past the cash flow crisis. Following the renewals of memberships starting 13 April, and the arrival of new grant funding, New Naratif is moving towards becoming again cash flow positive, and we are in a good position to hire new staff and execute our plans. A financial report, as part of our regular Transparency Report, will be issued in due course.

We believe our restructuring makes sense and we are now focused on putting our energy into the ongoing restructuring process and recruiting new team members to bring us forward. 

Southeast Asia faces massive challenges, including authoritarian governments who are aggressively shrinking or shutting down civic space, the ongoing climate crisis, and the depredations of neoliberal capitalism is destroying our lives and societies. 

New Naratif will continue to empower Southeast Asians to fight for a better Southeast Asia.

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