Friday, January 14, 2011

Grilling the Minister Mentor - Hard Truths

Jan 14, 2011

A book based on interviews that probe Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on his core beliefs will hit bookstores from next Friday. Elgin Toh speaks to the team of Straits Times journalists involved to piece together the story behind the book, Hard Truths.

DEC 22, 2008.
Seven journalists met in The Straits Times newsroom for a last-minute powwow on battle plans.
They were fine-tuning questions for an interview on the issues of leadership, talent recruitment and ministerial salaries. They discussed interview techniques. Mr Han Fook Kwang, 57, the editor of ST who led the team, would sit across the table from the interview subject. He would be flanked by deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim, 46, on one side, and on the other, by the writer tasked to write the chapter, deputy political editor Lydia Lim, 39.

Mr Han would be direct in the line of fire in case of verbal ripostes. 'We'll be right behind you,' quipped deputy review editor Chua Mui Hoong, 42.

The team had spent over four months preparing for this encounter with their interview subject: Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, now 87, Singapore's founding prime minister.

The encounter would be the beginning of 16 interviews for a book project. The format was deliberately adversarial. The ST team would pose hard questions and challenge Mr Lee's assumptions on core issues on Singapore and the world, and Mr Lee would answer and rebut them.

The ST team knew they faced a formidable opponent. The towering figure in Singapore's development had everything a politician could possibly ask for: oratorical skill, cerebral prowess and unflagging popular support. He had more than 50 years of experience and insight leading a country. And he had a reputation not only for speaking his mind, but also for not suffering fools gladly - and was known to tear to shreds not only arguments put to him, but also occasionally, the person who happened to be making them.

It had taken four months of painstaking work to prepare for the series of interviews which stretched from December 2008 to October 2009. Reporters Rachel Lin, 25, and Robin Chan, 27, pored through books and articles on Singapore and Mr Lee. Together with the other writers, they organised focus-group discussions and interviewed more than 200 Singaporeans.

Among them were academics and economists. News editor and former Money desk editor Ignatius Low, 38, and Mr Chan spoke separately with five leading economists here. Recalled Mr Chan: 'They helped us break down the fundamental structure of the Singapore economy and analyse alternative growth models.'

Some big themes that cropped up: Were the poor getting left behind? How many foreigners would be enough? Is Singapore overly dependent on multinational corporations?

'We gathered all their arguments and drafted 10 pages of questions just on the economy,' said Mr Chan.

Good, pertinent questions came not just from the experts. The authors made it a point to meet, in focus groups, ordinary, young Singaporeans.

Said Ms Lim: 'We asked them what questions they would ask Mr Lee if they had the chance, no matter how trivial or stupid they thought the questions were.'

In hindsight, these were the exchanges that churned out many pointed questions, said Ms Lin. 'The young Singaporeans were less willing to take political assumptions at their face value. They were a bit more brash in the way they stated their opposition.'

Said Ms Zuraidah: 'From all these varied discussions, we came up with a strong mix of questions, reflective of the dilemmas our society finds itself confronting.

'Of course, as reporters, we also wanted scoops and so we added questions that would unearth new stories and revelations from MM.'

The team arrived at the Istana in the late afternoon. They were taken to a waiting room, where Mr Lee's principal private secretary Chee Hong Tat and press secretary Yeong Yoon Ying joined them. A uniformed butler poured a round of piping hot fragrant Chinese tea. Nervous banter ensued.

Like troops girding for battle, each prepared in his or her personal way for the coming two-hour verbal joust.

Mr Han braced himself mentally. Ms Lim flipped through her notes. Ms Zuraidah checked her tape recorder and lined up two pens, black for writing and red to underline quotable quotes. She hoped there would be a lot of red used. Ms Chua practised diaphragmatic breathing. Mr Low remembered the advice he had been given by folk who had dealt with the mercurial interviewee: Count to five after he finishes speaking, before asking the next question.

The younger ones tried not to think of apocryphal stories they had heard - of people who quailed in front of Mr Lee, or worse, stood up to him and were rumoured to be doomed to lacklustre careers ever after.

The team went into the wood-panelled Cabinet room, so called because it was where Cabinet meetings are usually held. A long, oval table dominated the space. Mr Lee would sit across the team, with Mr Chee and Madam Yeong around him.

A lift took Mr Lee from his office straight into the Cabinet room. He walked in, steady and slow, puffing out his cheeks in his trademark manner. He sat down and settled himself.

Mr Han leaned forward and started.

'The interviews did not get off to a good start,' said Ms Stephanie Yeow.

The 39-year-old deputy picture editor of ST was the photographer present at all 16 interviews.
'The air was tense, especially at the first interview,' she said. 'Mr Lee was a bit impatient. But as the interviews got on, he warmed up to us.'

Ms Yeow was accompanied by her colleagues who shot the video footage of the interviews: Mr Kemburaju Thangarajan, 52, and Mr T. Kumar, 47. The three would always arrive at the Cabinet room - or the Sheares room depending on where the interview was held - two hours ahead of time to set up the equipment.

The project had actually begun in August 2008, when Mr Lee rang Mr Han one evening to say he had written drafts of chapters for a third volume of his memoirs, after The Singapore Story (1998), and From Third World To First (2000).

Mr Lee wanted a new book - a platform to convince younger Singaporeans of the country's quintessentially unique qualities, of its inherent vulnerability despite its successful present, and of the need to remain 'sturdy and robust' both economically and militarily, to avoid jeopardy.
He asked for Mr Han's opinion on the draft chapters. Mr Han went over them and consulted his colleagues at ST before reverting to him.

Speaking to Insight via e-mail, Mr Lee said: 'They told me that in this format young Singaporeans will not read it. They suggested that I answer questions a team of reporters put to me that the young want to know.'

Once he agreed, he embraced the question-and-answer format.

'Do not fear putting hard questions,' Mr Lee told the group. The remark would later prompt them internally to codename the project 'ST Ask Anything'.

Mr Han assembled a team from The Straits Times newsroom.

'I wanted to field some of our best writers who could make this cut-and-thrust approach work. We needed strong interviewers and writers who could give a fresh spin to Mr Lee's views and make them come alive in the book.

'We also wanted a book that will connect with young Singaporeans, so we selected two younger journalists, Rachel and Robin, who understood their perspectives better.'

Then began the frenetic period of preparatory research and brainstorming of questions, ahead of the interviews. The team started with the idea of organising the interviews around '10 key questions you would want to ask LKY'.

This quickly ballooned during brainstorming sessions into 10 broad topics. Eventually, the team settled for 11 areas of questioning: Singapore's fundamentals, leadership, politics, economics, welfare, the environment, geopolitics, foreigners, race and religion, family, and young Singaporeans.

Mr Lee was a combative, at times testy, interviewee. He was familiar with most, if not all, of the lines of arguments, after more than five decades in politics. Sometimes, he would dismiss them out of hand. Other times, he would hit back with full argumentative force.

Ms Lin described one particularly vigorous outburst from Mr Lee that 'left all of us shell-shocked'.

One of the journalists tried to submit to Mr Lee that the younger generation of Singaporeans was not quite convinced that Singapore was as vulnerable militarily as Mr Lee would suggest.
'And he just blew up,' said Ms Lin.

'He said: 'You tell me we're not vulnerable? God! What do we spend all this money on defence for? Are we mad?''

The sheer store of information at his disposal was also overpowering.

'He has amassed this huge store of knowledge - from reading, experience from governing, the meetings he's had with other world leaders, and the corporate boards he has been on. And he can wield this anecdote or that factoid, just like that. So it became doubly intimidating,' said Mr Low.

Nevertheless, the debates were free-flowing, with writers not hesitating to jump in to challenge the assumptions behind Mr Lee's remarks.

As the book will show, the reporters often persisted politely but doggedly with pointed questions, prompting an irate Mr Lee to say, in response to probing on whether Singapore could afford to be more generous in its welfare policy: 'For 50 years, I've tried to pilot my way through. Did it succeed?

'You won't convince me. Whether I convince you or not is irrelevant to me because I know these are the real facts. You're not going to shift me. And if the ministers believe like you would, then they are going to waste a lot of time and money, that's all.'

Sometimes, things even got a little personal.

Mr Lee once went round the table asking his interviewers: Where do you live? Are you married?
He asked Mr Chan his age (26 then) and retorted that if Mr Chan still felt the same way at 46, then he would not have learnt much. He asked Mr Han if he had daughters, and how he would feel if his daughter came back to say she wanted to marry a black man. During the interviews on race and religion, he asked Ms Zuraidah, the only Malay-Muslim in the group, about her faith.

Such personal scrutiny, and Mr Lee's piercing direct gaze as he listens to your question or answers it, is disconcerting to those unused to him, said Ms Chua.

'But you have to realise that it is not targeted at you, but your viewpoint. And you will also have to learn to respond not to him personally, but to the substance of his argument,' she said.

On the robust nature of his rebuttals, Mr Han said: 'That is what makes Mr Lee a very interesting person from a journalist's perspective. At the end of the day, it is never just an intellectual argument for him. It is about the welfare of millions of Singaporeans, and so it becomes a matter of life and death.'

Quite often throughout the interviews, Mr Lee would reveal gems of previously unreported information. Putting aside views on issues and policies, the writers found most memorable the glimpses Mr Lee gave into his personal and family life.

Said Ms Lim: 'I was struck when he said that his family and his country were the two most important things to him, and later when he said the happiest moment in his life was when he got his wife a scholarship at Cambridge so they could be together in the United Kingdom. It tells you that he brings the same determination and devotion to the two great commitments in his life.'

In a way, the book was overtaken by events when Mrs Lee died in October last year. The interviews had ended and the book was being written up and edited. Editors decided to run excerpts from the unpublished book in The Straits Times.

Mr Lee appeared frail during some interviews. He would be nursing a sprain from a fall or a bad throat, but would insist on going ahead as scheduled. He brought along his remedies: A heat pack for his injured thigh, a luminous strap for his aching back, and soothing mints for his sore throat.

Said Ms Zuraidah: 'Even then, whenever a question seized him, he would go at it, sharp as ever.'
Said Ms Lin: 'He would spray medication into his mouth, or have a heat pack tied around his thigh in front of everybody.

'And I'm thinking, this guy doesn't have anything to prove any more.'

'He knows it won't diminish his standing in our eyes at all.'

He was always courteous to those around him - the butler who brought him hot tea, his security officers, his secretaries, and the writers.

The conclusion of the 16th interview marked the start of the formal writing process. The writers pored through over 1,000 pages of transcripts. They chose the most interesting excerpts and wrote an introductory section for each chapter.

At the outset, the team decided to videotape all the interviews. The authors were quite aware that these were rare opportunities to record Mr Lee defending his record at this late stage in his political career. A DVD bundled with the book lets readers not only read Mr Lee's words but also hear and see him in action.

Ms Shirley Hew of The Straits Times Press - publisher of the book together with Singapore Press Holdings - and book editor Shova Lim proposed the book title Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, a reference to Mr Lee's statements that there were hard facts about Singapore that made it essential for the country to have a stable, strong government.

Executive design artist Sally Lam, 42, designed the book cover, choosing contemporary fonts, a gentler picture of Mr Lee and a soft, olive green background.

'We wanted the book to appeal visually to the younger generation, so they would pick it up and read it,' she said.

The book will be launched next Friday by Mr Lee. Much of it is in racy Q&A style, with a short introductory segment per chapter. It promises a refreshing take on familiar topics such as politics, economics, race and religion, climate change and geopolitics, and also wanders into uncharted waters. Does he believe in astrology and fengshui? Or love at first sight?

Says Mr Han: 'There hasn't been a book like this where his views are subjected to such intense questioning and scrutiny. Mr Lee's views are quite controversial, and many people have issues with them. But whether you agree with him or not, you can't argue with the force of his conviction.

'I hope even his critics will read the book and judge for themselves whether those views make sense for Singapore.'

Would it become lost in the sea of existing literature on Mr Lee? Prominent statesmen who were shown the book ahead of its launch seemed to think there was enough to distinguish Hard Truths.

Said former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, in a blurb for the book: 'The 32 hours of interviews that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave are unprecedented in their candour and in the variety of issues discussed.'

President Lee Myung Bak of South Korea said: 'Lee speaks out his mind with clear, candid and forceful words that will surely have a strong and lasting impact on the readers.'

The two younger writers found plenty to disagree with: Ms Lin was put off by his almost radical views on genetics and Mr Chan was unconvinced by the need to keep political activism out of university campuses. But as Mr Chan said: 'If you want to improve things in Singapore, you really need to understand its founding philosophies, the principles that have taken us to where we are today. That's what the book will give you.'

Added Mr Low: 'I always believe that people have a grand theory on life, a worldview that holds everything together. This book is the Lee Kuan Yew grand theory on life and politics and love and government and everything. It is the most systematic collection of his views to date.'
As for the MM's own take on the book: His instruction to the ST team was to leave everything uncensored.

'Write it as you think is bearable.'

He added: 'I wanted to write a few chapters. You say no, no, nobody will read me because they know my stand. All right. We do it this way. They will read you. Then they will read me to know what I say, either summing you up or contradicting you, that's all. But I want them to know that these are hard truths.'

He had this parting shot for the writers:

'If I don't agree with you, I'll rebut it.'

Face to Face

'He holds very strongly to his views. And if you don't watch it, it can become a monologue, because he will hold forth and speak without interruption for 15, 20 minutes. That's not how we wanted to do the book. There has to be cut and thrust, we have to be challenging him.'
Mr Han Fook Kwang

'We asked him about a comment he made that he would rather be feared than loved. He said, 'Yes, if you're not feared, you say something, people don't notice. I'm not interested in being loved, what's the profit in that?' He always speaks his mind.'
Ms Lydia Lim

'Some people might think that the PAP is evolving with the times, and hence MM must surely have changed his views. People will be surprised to find that in many cases, he hasn't.'
Mr Ignatius Low

'It was an awesome experience. I got to learn a lot more about Singapore. Prior to this, I was quite apathetic about Singapore, but the interviews made me more patriotic.'
Ms Rachel Lin

'I asked him if he believed in love, and he said, 'Yes'. Then he told us about how he courted Mrs Lee. He's a sensitive guy, he was in love, and it was touching. It was good to know that beyond this guy who absolutely destroyed his opponents, he had that in him.'
Mr Robin Chan

'I came away reflecting that we are all engaged in this human endeavour to lead a good and purposeful life. For him, it was service to country and devotion to family. Isn't that what we all aim for? No matter our station in life, we all struggle with the challenge of how to lead a good life.'
Ms Chua Mui Hoong

'At 87, MM is still thinking hard about our collective future and how to keep the Singapore story going. You have to admire such dedication to a dream.'
Ms Zuraidah Ibrahim

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