Wednesday, July 7, 2010

'This column on Singapore, are you sure you want it to run?'

In this excerpt from his new book, Confessions Of An American Media Man, veteran journalist Tom Plate writes about his first visit to Singapore in the 1990s, and his interview with then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Istana.
The Straits Times 15 January 2007.

I HAD been writing my Asia column for hardly more than a year when a bright student of mine named Gwendoline Yeo (now an accomplished actress in Los Angeles and occasional guest star on Desperate Housewives) suggested that I visit Singapore, where she had been born and raised until early adolescence.

Initially, I scoffed at the idea. I'd only been to China once at that point and the young column was progressing just fine. Why should I waste a trip on tiny little Singapore? Who would care?

But, being a bright young woman, and a trilingual one at that, Gwendoline justified her assertion in the language a political writer could comprehend: 'You should go to Singapore because you will meet a political genius named Lee Kuan Yew.'

I was intrigued by her characterisation of the founder of modern Singapore. It was certainly true that the country had become a city state of extraordinary influence and success, especially considering its minute size and population. But it had a political system that ran things, shall we say, not exactly in the American way. It was a one-party goliath that squeezed out - or absorbed into the ruling party - all of the significant political opposition. That was the bad news (from the US political values perspective).

The good news was this: Lee had built a top government team that single-handedly transformed impoverished Singapore, which was abandoned a half century ago as a lost cause by the ever-pragmatic British, into one of the most impressive little places in the world. But again, he did not do it the American way.

The seeming duality of the place - the contrast between enviable achievements and questionable process - fascinated me; so did the political enigma of Lee Kuan Yew, who, to say the least, had not received a very good press in the United States, at least in the 1990s.

I decided to call on the government of Singapore and phoned to ask for a journalist's visa so as to travel there for a column or two.

Initially - and to my surprise - they were not enthusiastic. 'Oh sure, we know what you're going to do,' said the government official who handled the foreign press. 'You're going to come to Singapore, you're going to spend 2.1 days here, you're going to write 3.1 articles and you're going to mention that caning incident 17.6 times.'

They had a point.

The Singapore government had been keeping track of foreign journalists who parachuted in (and stayed for some time, then write the one dominant story on caning) for quite a long time. Indeed, before I left for South-east Asia, I had reviewed the Los Angeles Times (LAT) database of previous columns and stories, and found that the vast majority of those done in recent years (or ever!) had focused on Singapore's use of caning as criminal punishment and social deterrence, and about its first known American recipient thereof, the notorious Michael Fay.

He was more or less a typical young irresponsible American goofball who decided to publicly display his spray-painting skills on walls and cars in a political culture whose entire goal was absolute public respect for authority - and control of deviance of almost all kinds. In such a small and well-policed city state, the young American was quickly arrested and promptly sentenced to a handful of whacks from the strict Singaporean caning rod.

The US media outcry was instantly condemnatory. How primitive! How animalistic! But it never occurred to the American media so loudly lynching Singapore - and telling it how to run its affairs - that American public opinion was far more in favour of than against this practice, probably because we wish we could be at least a little sterner with our own errant children, perhaps even without getting slapped with an ACLU (American Civilian Liberties Union) lawsuit. More on the Michael Fay case here and here.

But let's go back to my conversation with the Singapore government.

'Okay, I'll make you a deal,' I said. 'I'll stay 5.0 days, a whole work week. I won't go to Malaysia, I won't go to Indonesia, I won't go anywhere else in Asia during that time. I'll look, I'll learn and I'll write one column in which I'll likely only bring up caning once because, as an American journalist, I'm going to have to mention your caning law at least once or I'll lose my journalistic licence!'

I was joking, of course, or was I? Of course, American journalists don't have to be licensed, but should they be? Now, that's an interesting question; you might be surprised by my answer!

The Singapore official threw my pitch right back at me: 'Okay, here is what you are proposing: you'll stay one week, you'll write one column, you'll keep an open mind, you'll observe, you'll listen, you'll look and you'll only probably mention caning once?'

'Correct. But I will have to mention it once or I won't be able to get the column into the Los Angeles Times.'

'There must be a catch.'

'There is a catch.'

'Uh-oh, right. What's that?'

'Before I leave Singapore, I must have an interview with Lee Kuan Yew.'

The media relations official said he would get back to me and hung up.

I never thought I would hear from him again.

Word came back from Singapore two days later. 'Okay, here's the deal as we understand it. You come, you stay a week, you see what you want. No one will follow you around. You write whatever you want, of course. We'll be helpful to you in any way we can, and at five o'clock on Friday, since we know you are leaving on Saturday on a Singapore Airlines flight 868 (Singapore's government officials, to generalise, are extremely precise and always do their homework better than you had done yours) to Hong Kong, you can have 45 minutes with Lee Kuan Yew in his office at the Istana.'

The Istana was an old but lovely British colonial residence. It had its own nine-hole golf course. It was gorgeous. Lee Kuan Yew, as a proud ethnic Chinese Singaporean, may have been happy to have the British vacate the premises, but no one had ever said he was dumb. Istana soon became his government's equivalent of the White House.

So off I went to Singapore, and, as I laughingly tell my students, as soon as I touched down at the airport, had gone immediately to the information booth and asked: 'Where does the caning take place? Where are the caning centres?' They looked at me like I was crazy. I was joking, of course.

What I found in Singapore was a modern state with a high standard of living where roughly 90 per cent of all families own their homes. There is almost full employment; the place is as clean as a whistle; and many, if not all, government offices have air-conditioners - thank God - because the temperature in the country gives lit ovens a bad name!

Sure, Singapore had its problems - ethnic tension, excessive political uptightness, constant worries about employment. But they've done one heck of a job in many respects and any fair-minded parachute journalist had to be duly impressed.

The city state has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. The environment is so clean that it is a Western environmentalist's paradise. There is no littering. On the ride from the airport, you look out from the car and search in vain for trash on the roadside. The public education system consistently rates as one of the best in the world.

The Singapore Cabinet invariably fields a team whose collective IQ is at least equal to that of its neighbours' Cabinets combined; its civil servants are paid well and its appointment process is, by and large, merit-driven; and its much-maligned, if always pro-government, news media - while not a 'rock-'em-sock-'em' negativistic pile driver like its counterparts in America - serves all its ethnicities pretty well by not sensationalising frictions and counts one world-class daily newspaper, The Straits Times, among its holdings.

This was not the Singapore I had read about in the Western press - a lifeless, uninteresting, robotic, hell-hole equatorial humidor of a place. On the contrary, it was something else and I rather liked it.

Such was my general impression as the much-anticipated Friday appointment with the Senior Minister approached. Lee Kuan Yew took that invented title after stepping down as the founding prime minister a half dozen years before. (Lee later assumed the post of Minister Mentor in 2004.)

Who was this man - so glibly portrayed in the US media as some kind of political control freak, as nothing more than a 'soft authoritarian' - who managed to engineer one of the most remarkable national development success stories in the post-war history of nation-building? The answer turned out to be anything but a disappointment.

The interview was long and deep. Instead of the 45 minutes I was scheduled for, Singapore's founding prime minister laid out his views for nearly two pleasant but intense hours, replying to every one of my questions with astonishing precision, careful thoughtfulness and a charming British lilt acquired in his years as a Cambridge student in England.

What was the biggest problem he faced when he and his People's Action Party began to piece Singapore back together in the 1960s? Surprisingly, Lee said it wasn't the economy, national security nor public schools, but rather the omnipresent, oppressive, lawless, marauding drug gangs who roamed the streets, terrorised the citizenry and kept the decent people of Singapore indoors at night.

The British had largely ignored the gangsters during their reign. As a result of this debilitating carte blanche, the problem mushroomed into a living nightmare. Roaming gangs controlled the streets not only by night but also during the day, and the threat of being an innocent but dead bystander in a drug gang gun battle or drive-by was real. It was impossible to build a peaceful society with that kind of arrant misconduct, insisted Lee.

I asked him what he did to combat the gangs.

'We had the army arrest them and put them in jail.'

'So, how did the trials go?' I said, reasonably.

'We didn't have trials,' the senior statesman replied directly.

'What?!' I tried to seem unruffled but I think I failed. My Americanness was shining through too obviously.

'You see, Tom, we inherited the British system of justice which requires the first-person testimony of one gang member to convict another one. But the gangs would kill off anybody who talked, so what developed was a revolving door system in which an arrest would be made and there'd be a trial which hinged on the testimony of a witness who then would be killed by agents of the indicted gangsters, and out the door would go the criminals, back onto the streets.'

'Why couldn't the police protect the witnesses?'

'They weren't strong enough.'

'So what did you do?'

'We let the army round them up and put the gang members in jail,' Lee said.

'So, where are they today?'

'By and large, they are still in jail.'

'But that's preposterous!'

He looked me in the eye clearly and evenly, and said directly, without a trace of apology: 'Mr Plate, haven't you noticed? The streets of Singapore are safe.'

He had me there. Years later, my spunky wife Andrea put this to me: I want to go away for a week, by myself, without obnoxious you or pain-in-the-neck child around me. I need a week all to myself. What, in your view, is the most interesting and safe place for a woman alone? Easy, I answered, Singapore. She went and mainly loved it. She went several times again, and again mainly loved the place, though she has been developing the very strong view that the former prime minister ought to lighten up a little and let his people enjoy themselves more. Then the place might be near-perfect.

We switched to other topics. I asked him about dealing with China. He was of the emphatic view that the key to stability in Asia was the stability of China, and believed that to no little extent the stability of China was directly related to the state of its relationship with the US. If that relationship was 'gotten right', in the Senior Minister's phrase, or in other words, if it could be a civil one that minimised antagonism and maximised cooperation, China - and Asia - had a good future ahead of it. But if something akin to the Cold War erupted, Asia would become unstable since much of Asian prosperity depends on its political stability and lack of confrontation.

I left the interview convinced that Lee Kuan Yew - love him or hate him - had an exceptional mind and a very steely will.

I banged out my Singapore column from the gorgeous Shangri-La Hotel, faxed and e-mailed it to the LAT, and went to the airport for the long flight back to California. I slept like a puppy.

When I arrived back in Los Angeles, an urgent phone call was waiting for me. It was from an editor at the LAT: 'Tom, this column on Singapore, are you sure you want it to run?'

I said: 'Sure, what's wrong with it?'

'Well, it's, um, how do I put's kind of soft on Singapore.'

'What do you mean?'

'Singapore is a terrible place, Tom! You're too easy on them.'

'Have you ever been there?'

It was allowed that the editor had not ever been.

'I just returned after a week of reporting and I do not think it is a terrible place at all. I think the column is quite fair. No one followed me around; I didn't see any caning; and Lee Kuan Yew is a helluva lot smarter than Dan Quayle.'

'I don't know. There are some mumblings about this column from Higher Authority.'

'Look, Singapore's press, whatever its strengths, is obviously not as free as a free press in the West. But isn't it one of our press' most revered calling cards that we're totally open and free, and thus any well-substantiated point of view can get into print?'

I was inadvertently asking if we wanted the LAT to be as repressive as he was accusing the Singapore news media of being.

The ploy worked. The LAT shrank back and the column ran, and there really was nothing in the piece that could be construed as blatantly anti-American. If anything, it revealed the many ways in which Lee looked favourably upon the US. It said, in part: 'Lee, like many Asian leaders, never permits his anti-Americanism to go more than a tenth of an inch deep. In fact...(he) views the US as the world's only credible guarantor of the nation-preserving principle of non-aggression - an important and much appreciated trait in the eyes of a tiny country wedged amidst a bevy of larger and more powerful ones. Lee even inadvertently forwarded the multi-ethnic values of the US by warning Japan 'to moderate its emphasis on its uniqueness if it (wants) to be fully accepted by the international community'.'

Lee was equally pragmatic in his criticism of the US. He calmly pointed out that the US itself should be careful not to ignore festering domestic issues, especially inner city poverty and under-education, while experimenting too much with 'new lifestyles', because a domestically stable America 'is the keystone of the all-important triangular relationship with China and Japan'.

That sounds more like the musings of a thoughtful statesman than some crackpot despot. (A few years later, I was to interview South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who was awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. He enthusiastically characterised Lee as 'a political leader of insight' who single-handedly 'led a tiny country to a prosperous modern society amid the tidal waves of modern politics'.)

Lee understands world politics to be an interrelated net of ideologies and practices, some of which correspond to the American way while others do not. Lee's own political leanings obviously fall into the latter category but I saw no reason to slam him for that, especially since he used his un-American beliefs to create a safe, prosperous and peaceful new country.

A week or so after the column ran (which the LAT aptly titled 'More Homeowners Than Hard-Liners'), I got a phone call from the inimitable Dimitri Simes, director of the Nixon Centre in Washington, which was planning to honour Lee Kuan Yew as 'Statesman of the Year' at a dinner in November that year.

He said, hilariously, that he had just gotten a telephone call from Henry Kissinger in New York, who had just read William Safire's column in the New York Times that excoriated Singapore and referred to Lee as a 'little Hitler'. An irate Kissinger had called Dimitri and said: '(Insert heavy German accent here) Dimitri! I am so angry with Bill. His piece was garbage. How could he write such junk? He's never been to Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew is one of the great statesmen of Asia and the world. In fact, that columnist 'Platt-ay' (he was mispronouncing my last name, which is really pronounced like dinner plate) in Los Angeles Times, he had a much more nuanced view.'

Obviously, there was enjoyment in hearing this. My 'Higher Authority' of yesteryear, Bill Safire, had not only gotten the Singapore story wrong, but he had gotten it wrong because he violated his own essential first principle: Report, report, report. Safire was later to revise his view about Lee Kuan Yew, but only after spending some time with him, for the first time. Before that, the brilliant columnist had never visited Singapore. I had, many times. This was the difference.

Always report. A journalist's first principle should always be: Report, report, report.

In fact, Kissinger was so upset by Safire's uninformed column that he proposed to the Nixon Centre that he would delay his long-planned business trip to Turkey if the centre still wanted him to introduce Lee. The centre had proposed this several months before but Kissinger had politely declined due to the prior commitment.

The Nixon Centre, of course, was not stupid. On hearing the offer, they were elated. 'Absolutely! We'd love to have you, Henry.' This was tough for Turkey but sweet for the Nixon people.

Well, the Nixon Centre felt I had started the ball rolling by writing a column that not only unsettled the editors of the LAT but outright infuriated Bill Safire, who in turn wrote a column that outraged Kissinger. It then came to pass that I, too, was invited to the dinner and to the private reception before the main event. I was the delighted beneficiary of the ultimate political bank shot - how could I not go?

On the day of the dinner, in a private downstairs reception room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, I sat meekly in the corner and watched the East Coast 'A' list enter the room, preening. This was the who's who in political Washington. There was also the 'B' list. This was the who's who from the Singapore diaspora (and who not coincidentally are also rich) from the Great Washington Area. Then, finally, there was the 'C' list - 'Platt-ay' from Los Angeles, with his guest, a Singaporean who was visiting relatives in Washington DC and whom Dimitri had said I could bring.

Kissinger, of course, made his grand entrance - as did Newt Gingrich and Bill Bradley and many other big shots. I watched with fascination.

The charismatic Lee and his wife (a Double First, signifying top academic honours at Cambridge) arrived to claim the spotlight. There was a sense of ceremony. Everyone bowed and scraped and congratulated. It was a largely Republican audience but as I looked at my guest for the evening - a Singapore-born student - I could easily understand that, even though she represented the younger generation of Singaporeans that viewed Senior Minister Lee with a combination of admiration and loathing (wishing for the day that a less rigid generation of leaders would come to power), there was also pride in her eyes that her own country's founding father was receiving such a high accolade in the capital of the world's only superpower.

Lee saw me and dramatically pointed in my direction. 'Los Angeles Times!' he said in a strong voice. The reception room, packed to its edges, quieted a little.

I thought to myself, laughing: 'Oh God, he can't remember my name but he's going to cane me anyhow!'

Instead, he said: 'That column of yours ...I well know and appreciate the ideology of the American media. That column was brave of you.'

This was an amazing moment. Sure, Lee would not be the first person to seek favour with a columnist by flattering him but I do not think that was his motive. He does not care that much what the Western press thought about him, unless Singapore's overall image was hurt.

His point was that the American news media had an overarching ideology that is all but invisible to us, but extremely obvious to those outside our borders; he also implicitly understood that if the American journalist deviated from that ideology by too wide a margin, the journalist runs certain risks, especially professionally.

I had deviated by not slamming Singapore; I had run some risks; and I don't think the LAT was ever happy with that column, nor with a lot of my columns about China which emphasised the tides of change sweeping that country rather than human rights abuses or outdated Chinese ways, nor even my columns about Japan, which preached understanding instead of condemnation.

You see, in the American media, if you're not bashing, you're not a real macho journalist.

I did say in the column that Lee is indeed 'another Asian authoritarian without remorse...whose flinty intolerance of such things as a vigorous free press seems buffered by (his) donnish accents of Cambridge'. That was balanced with the assertion that America 'doesn't have to agree with everything (Lee) says. But why not listen? We could learn something about Singapore (from him) - and about ourselves, too.'

Well, a balanced perspective doesn't fly for very long in the American political press. As a journalist, you're considered bland, a milquetoast, a pushover. You're written off as a dork by those who long for the sharp teeth of the ever-hungry, self-appointed watchdog. Lee Kuan Yew had his faults, as do we all, and one must freely acknowledge that. But even his worst critics acknowledge that he is a man of superior intellect and extraordinary experience, and possessed an iron will put to the good use of his country. Yes, he did things the Singaporean way, and not the American way, but that's precisely what America needs to understand. It works.

Confessions Of An American Media Man (page 52 for this story on Singapore) is published by Marshall Cavendish Editions (2007).

My 'Higher Authority' of yesteryear, Bill Safire, had not only gotten the Singapore story wrong, but he had gotten it wrong because he violated his own essential first principle: Report, report, report. Safire was later to revise his view about Lee Kuan Yew, but only after spending some time with him, for the first time. Before that, the brilliant columnist had never visited Singapore. I had, many times. This was the difference.

Well, a balanced perspective doesn't fly for very long in the American political press. As a journalist, you're considered bland, a milquetoast, a pushover. You're written off as a dork by those who long for the sharp teeth of the ever-hungry, self-appointed watchdog.

Read Tom Plate & Jeffrey Cole's 2007 interview with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew

and Tom Plate's 2004 candid conversation with the Future Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore: Lee Hsien Loong.