Conversations with Tom Plate – transcript of snippets

Posted on 27 February 2011

On political journalism (from lecture)

When political journalism is done right, it makes a really valuable contribution.. Think about what George Orwell did when he explained to us about totalitarianism… As we rightly dump on the silly journalism that chases stars into restaurants and all of that, and the commercialism of journalism, we need to not forget that there’s a kind of journalism that needs to be held to a high standard and does makes a valuable contribution. Because only history at the end of the day, 1500 years from now, is going to make a great final judgement on Lee Kuan Yew, and on Mahathir.

What the journalists do is they do now. We do now, and because we do now, we make mistakes, our calibrations are rough an approximate. All we can give you is an approximate judgement now. And that’s what this is. It’s a judgement of Mahathir now, of Lee Kuan Yew now, take it for what it’s worth.


The one-on-one started on an awkward note when we asked Tom if he would rather be under the Lee Kuan Yew or Mahathir regime.

Silence, for a good 5 seconds while he held his glass of wine in hand.

Q. I know it’s been a long day but I just need to ask you this question.

A. Go ahead.

Q. You’ve been in Malaysia for a long time?

A. Yeah.

Q. You’ve been in Singapore for a long?

A. Have I been in Malaysia for a long time?

Q. To know the country?

A. No… not at all.

Q. Singapore no?

A. I don’t think so. I’ve been to Singapore more than I’ve been to Malaysia.

Q. Ok, just off the top of your head, given a chance to reside in either country, which one would it be?

A. On the border… heh heh heh.

Q. And why?

A. One foot in Malaysia and one foot in Singapore. No seriously… I don’t… (pauses for 5 seconds)

Q. Ok, let’s put it this way: Whose regime (Lee Kuan Yew or Dr M) would you rather be under?

A. (Pauses for eight seconds.)

Q. You can drink (points to wine)

A. Eh no, I’m definitely not going to answer that question, I’m just trying to figure out how to get around it. I’m not as stupid as I look, just because I’m American doesn’t mean I’m stupid…

Q. Damn it…

A. Yeah yeah… I think they’re different, totally different things. I think frankly, Singapore offers a more intellectual atmosphere? A slightly more globalised environment. I think Malaysia offers one that is closer to cultural roots of Asia and people. And it is more diverse obviously, because it’s four to five times as big. (Editor’s note: I think Tom probably meant four to five hundred times as big.) I’ve been to Singapore a dozen times, and KL half dozen times and I’m never bored of either place. They’re different, it’s like choosing between, like do you like tomato juice or do you like carrot juice? Either one is available, I’m happy with it.

Q. Ok, so following that, since you are a political journalist, under which regime would you rather be a political journalist?

A. (Pauses for 4 seconds.)

Q. Now, now, for example now. Now it’s quite liberal… Pretty much.

A. Where?

Q. In both countries.

A. Ok. Then either country is fine.

Q. You got to choose, man. I mean both have pros and cons. Just give me a comparison.

A. (Pauses for 8 seconds) Well, I’m sorry, I’ll rather be an American journalist who comes to this region and is frankly, treated quite well by both M&Mes, is allowed to pursue his work as an American journalist and is treated as a fellow professional. Even though their system is different from our system. The Malaysian way is not the American way. The Singaporean way is not the American way. I think that’s the ideal way to relate to both this places.

In retirement, you know, could I imagine living in either country? I actually could. But I don’t think my wife could. My wife does not like the perceived rigidity of Singapore. And I’m not so sure, as a Jew, she would be hundred percent comfortable in Malaysia? So I’ve given you something controversial. I’m talking about my wife.

You mentioned in your lecture that you haven’t met any effective leader who’s not an egomaniac. Do you think this is the reason why don’t Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir don’t want to step down?

Plato when he was writing about the republic. Said that the only reason that a citizen or republican would want to be a philosopher king, was the fear of being ruled by the lesser. [This] goes to the motivation of why you want to be a ruler. What Plato was trying to say, was that the overly ambitious man will not have the ideal wisdom to run the republic.

What happens if you’re Lee Kuan Yew or Mahathir, is that you get into the position and you realize that in your own judgement, the people who can replace you are by and large fools and knaves and that you really are the best person. And then you develop an expertise and so on and so forth ad because of the nature of the way you use power, there really isn’t any limit to it.

And then you get to believe that you’re irreplaceable. The successfully democratic systems have developed institutional mechanisms making sure people move along in them. I mentioned in the lecture hall how the Ameircan system has evolved into an almost informal way constitutional way of using a former president. That’s one of the better aspects of our system. They don’t have that in Malaysia. But Lee Kuan Yew in his wisdom, insisted that there be some way of doing that. But the way he did, which I think is pretty clever, is that rather than to dumped the guy in the street, you make him a lesser minister but he still has sort of an advisory role. Now of course with LKY much more than an advisory role, but still, it’s a way of using political talent that hasn’t really burnt itself up yet.

They face the same problem in Hong Kong. They had a chief executive, he was unpopular and then he had to leave…why should your successor propose to do A when you tried to do A and it didn’t work, and you can tell him why it didn’t work. Why waste your money and your time.

I know I’ve had certain jobs in journalism and you become a junkie to your job. And then when you leave to job….I mean, I hated to take vacations. Because I could never relax, I couldn’t wait to get back to my job, I needed my action fix. And I think he does as well.

Right. How are we as citizens supposed to take them seriously at this point? I mean, look at the remarks both the old men have been making: anti-semitism and assortative mating. Isn’t it worse that they’re in power when they may not be mentally as able as before?

Basically the common sense of most people is a powerful tool. Bill Clinton once said of the American people that they had great common sense, and fundamentally are very good. When he dicked around with his intern, the republicans were so happy. They said “we finally got the SOB”..but slick Willy was hard to get, couldn’t get him on…all kinds of issues. And everytime the revelations came out…Clintons’s standing on the pole rose. And republicans couldn’t figure it out….

American people were saying: 50% of all marriages are seriously in trouble. We all have issues in a relationship. This is something between Hillary and Bill. But actually you guys did a pretty damn good job, you republicans are just jealous.

Clinton said many years after that American people are very fair. Most people cannot filter out exactly a certain leader has been there for too long, saying outrageous things because he wants to stay in the limelight. On the other hand, some of the things they say are worth listening to. It’s better that the political culture or political structure gives them a place so it doesn’t have to be awkward, doesn’t have to be forced. I think one of the problems with Mahathir was that he had to force himself in. Would have been better if he had some kind of semi-constitutional role as a former PM.

Before we go, is there any section that you would like us NOT to publish. There’s a certain sections where you said ‘dicking around’ to descibe the Lewinsky scandal..

You know what standards of taste and norms are, you make the decision. If people are offended by the use of the word ‘dick’ then they ought to get a life.

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  • BryanT

    SH, sorry, to say this, but you basically waste Tom’s time for more than the first half of what is published here. And probably your own time and opportunity too.

    I know it is hard to predict how he could have responded, but the questions were so…… amateurish.

    Tom Plate can tell you a lot more about Singapore, especially from an American perspective but you basically tried to corner him on a comparison between Sg and Msia.

    Maybe you would want to respond and explain what your drift was, in doing so. Especially with Msia as a (low) benchmark. I certainly could not figure it out.

    • Fiona

      Give SH some slack, she’d done her best for this interview.

  • dingoson

    Wah BryanT! Your comment so professional! Cannot stand it!

    eh seriously, dick off lah…

    • BryanT

      Dingoson, is that the best vocabulary you can marshal to represent the logical void of whatever point you are making, or even attempting to make.

      I am sure SH would NOT be very proud of your attempt to protect her, not that she needs any from one with clearly an inability to express him/herself beyond lowly expletives.

      Note that I have not had to need to resort to any verbal retribution.

      You want to try to redeem yourself?

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  • Shihan

    Yo chillax guys.

    @BryanT: That question that you suggested has been talked about at length in his book. I read it and I didn’t want him to rehash whatever he wrote. If you’re interested I can lend you the book.
    In any case, Malaysia isn’t a low benchmark at all. Put MM Lee in M’sia and he probably wouldn’t have done it as well as Mahathir. Singapore’s a tiny little aquarium and so easily controlled, unlike M’sia with it’s arguably more complicated racial dynamics, geography, religions e.t.c. So I don’t think it’s fair to do away with any comparison just because we’ve been told Singapore’s so much better than the one up North.

    @Dingosan: ehhh…expletives allowed BUT you need to add value with each comment you post. Something more substantial in future can? Otherwise you waste everyone’s time and vision space.