Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hard Truths debunk misconceptions

Feb 22, 2011

By Tom Plate

MANY residents of this famous and successful city state doubt that the new book, Hard Truths, offers true full disclosure. The political system here is not open in the breezy (even sloppy) manner of a Western democracy, and so such wonder about this new runaway bestseller spotlighting the wide-ranging views of Singapore's founder Lee Kuan Yew is no surprise.

But is it warranted?

The soft truth is that I have been coming here on reporting trips virtually every year since 1996 and I can't answer their question, either. But what must be said about this extraordinarily skilled 458-page compendium of interviews and commentary about the venerable Singaporean legend LKY is that it gives the lie to the notion that this place is some sort of totalitarian society.

Call it a 'soft' authoritarian political system or even call it a Singapore Inc economic system, if you like. In fact, label it almost anything you want - but do not call it totalitarian.

No such totally closed society - the abject totality of the closure being the essence of the definition of the term - could have supported a culture that could have produced so broad and deep and in fact so free-wheeling a national self-examination.

The book's formal title is Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. It's based on a mountain of interviews with Minister Mentor Lee, conducted with almost Jesuitical thoroughness by a crack team of editors and reporters from The Straits Times. This is the island state's leading daily newspaper and (easily) one of Asia's most comprehensive and professional.

I have been scratching my head for days now trying to recall a comparable tome from America's political culture. I think there is none.

In this book, Mr Lee does his thing in his usual inimitable way - and this engaging and entertaining act is almost always worth the price of admission.

He tosses off deep political insights like a contemporary Asian sage and lobs out politically incorrect bombshells like an irreverent (but think very high-end) nightclub satirist. You laugh almost as much as you marvel over the guy's amazing brain. I always tell my university students that anyone interviewing Mr Lee who leaves with a flat story is a failed journalist who belongs in another business - like accounting.

But let's be honest: there is a stern and relentlessly old-fashioned side to Mr Lee, however widely admired among world leaders for the quality of his geopolitical analysis and of course for the astonishing achievements of his beloved Singapore (its most recent recorded growth rate hovers at 14 per cent).

The fact is he can be pretty starchy and unyielding, and so maybe the best chapter in this superb volume is Not Your Average Granddad. It was conducted and written by Ms Rachel Lin - at 25 years of age, the youngest of The Straits Times team of seven. May it be true of allegedly starchy Singapore that more like her roam the island with such a free spirit.

The brave and hip Ms Lin peppers the elder statesman with queries about homosexuality, love-at-first-sight, fave films, gothic rock bands and body tattoos. At times Mr Lee admits he has little idea what the young woman is talking about. Undeterred, she says at one point, almost instructionally: 'This may be a bit shocking but many young Singaporeans are specifically getting yakuza-inspired tattoos now...'

You can almost imagine seeing the Minister Mentor's jaw drop: for while he is in no way out of his depth with the Kissingers of the world, he is hilariously no match for this young un-fearing with-it journalist.

In fact, it will take absolutely nothing away from Mr Lee's many insightful contributions if we walk away from the book in admiration of the concise and highly informative commentary sections provided by The Straits Times' editors and reporters, sandwiched between the lengthy chapter conversations.

Many of them bring a level of self-examination and critical awareness about national progress and the political system that easily rivals the depth of the ongoing political self-examination in the United States. The journalists ask themselves whether the country's economic progress is sustainable and its present course correct. Their evaluation is as penetrating as it is subtle.

No closed society could yield such open-minded self-review. This is an astonishing book well worth reading beyond the narrow confines of Singapore, the tiny non-totalitarian city state. Anyone concerned about the quality of governance and the state of the world will learn from it.
The writer is a Los Angeles-based columnist.

1 comment:

May said...

thanks for putting up this article. I needed to send it to a friend in Australia who is a great fan of LKY!

He just visited SIngapore and has bought a copy of Hard Truths to bring home.