Tag Archive | "Tom Plate"

Hey local journalist! Kishore says you no chutzpah

Hey local journalist! Kishore says you no chutzpah

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Tom Plate was charming, patronising and self-contradictory at the same time. What about Kishore Mahbubani? He was just condescending.

By Belmont Lay

ALRIGHT it’s official: Even though I think American journalist Tom Plate is a rotund, ruddy-faced hardcore media junkie and a somewhat perplexing character, he is great fun as an interviewee.

Tom – let’s just agree to first-name him for being such a jolly good fellow – besides being informal, relaxed and enjoys making wisecracks matter-of-factly, is verbose, organised, anecdotal and quotable, to say the least.

He makes for an interviewer’s wet dream because he takes on any question you throw at him. But beware, as he is also pretty slick at the art of evasively manoeuvering around the topic.

Naturally, this says nothing about being a good sport for not answering the question at all. But usually, and particularly so in Tom’s case, what is not said speaks louder than what is articulated. (Read rest of transcript of conversations with Tom Plate here.)

So when I went to his book launch talk on Feb. 24 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), I was there baiting for a good quote or two.

Since Tom was presenting on how he had written both his books on conversations with Asian leaders abiding by journalistic standards of hard questioning, while borrowing liberally from Los Angeles screen writers practice of employing evocative prose in the present tense, I had to ask him this during the Q&A segment:

“Do you think that the style and methodology of your book would have worked if it was written by a local journalist? If not, what does it say about you, Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir and the state of our media?”

To Tom’s credit, and he denies it’s an ego thing, he had a good reason when he said no local journalist could have written those books about conversations with LKY and Dr. M.

And that’s because he wrote them as an outsider with new insights to showcase:

“Why would you bring some white guy with crazy hair from LA (to interview Dr. M in Kuala Lumpur)? The answer is that it is a silly idea, or the answer is that some outsider brings in some value-add precisely because they are an outsider.

“And the funny thing about an outsider? You ever had a situation you had a long-lost relative visit you for a long weekend? And you wind up telling them things you wouldn’t tell your next door neighbour? Because you know on Tuesday they’re gone, while the next door neighbour’s going to be there? There’s that: You are able to strike a measure of intimacy precisely by being an outsider.

“Do I think this format would have worked if a Malaysian journalist would have done it, or a Singaporean journalist would have done it? Honestly – and it has nothing to do with me, nothing to do with me, please, I don’t want to, as self-regarded as I am – I don’t think so. I don’t think it would work.

“Because in the media environment of Singapore and in KL, it is a certain specific environment and to write this kind of book you have to step out of it somehow. And I think that would be very hard to do. On the other hand, in a book done by Singaporeans, and there’s this book Hard Truths, which I reviewed but I don’t know if you saw on The Straits Times on Tuesday, I think it’s a brilliant book… but that book, I couldn’t have written. And I frankly don’t think anybody in that team could have written that book I did.”

Like I said, Tom is awesome at this business of being modest but honest and compelling at the same time.

And when he asked if he had answered my question, I said, “Sort of”.

When he became bent on answering what he might have missed, I prodded him:

“It’s just the impression that you were used to portray Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir through the eyes of a foreigner or Westerner to make them much softer than they really are.”

And this set him off in another direction and here’s where the contradiction surfaced when Tom said:

“Well, the fact of the matter is that I asked Lee Kuan Yew questions that I don’t think any Singaporean journalist has ever asked Lee. I was able to ask questions that were harder than local journalists might ask because I’m not a citizen here. I’m going back to Los Angeles because what’s he going to do? Take my citizenship away?”

Was Tom Plate suffering from superiority complex when he said no local journalist could have written his books? No, not really.

But was his self-contradiction about Hard Truths missed by those present? No, barely. I met at least three people who used this point to exchange pleasantries with me after the talk.

Because Tom has a point and that is also the point of today’s missive: Once you’re instilled with fear, journalism is screwed.

So what’s this nonsense about Tom Plate claiming that Hard Truths is a brilliant book in Tuesday’s newspaper review when even he himself says that Singaporean journalists cannot ask hard questions?

The double standard is, therefore, glaring.

Journalism, as practised by those in the West and abhored by members of the potentate such as LKYSPP dean Kishore Mahbubani, unless it is used to serve their own interest, has allowed scribes such as Tom to punch above his weight class.

While on the other hand, a hoard of local journalists in Singapore can barely punch above their collective weight because, as Tom was insinuating, they can never really ask hard questions.

But it was Mahbubani’s condescension one could sense a mile away.

Here is what Mahbubani, who was the moderator of the talk, said that really took the cake when he concluded with his own answer to my query:

“I think frankly, to be completely candid about this, it will be very difficult for a local journalist to, in a sense, have this kinds of conversations because both MM Lee and Dr Mahathir Mohamad are formidable personalities. And it requires someone with a lot of chutzpah (elicits a lot of laughs from crowd) who can actually ask these sorts of questions that need to be asked. And I think that is Tom’s huge contribution.”

“The second point I want to make is not just about having conversations. It is about capturing the richest parts of the conversations and distilling them to relatively tiny little books that you can learn a lot from.”

What can I add to all this?

Go on, read Hard Truths. It is for your own good. It is a really special book on par with many religious texts. It can purportedly give you difficult answers without necessarily having had any difficult questions asked in the first place.


Conversations with Tom Plate – transcript of snippets

Conversations with Tom Plate – transcript of snippets

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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.

“When will Lee…..”

“When will Lee…..”

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A 10-minute one-on-one conversation with Tom Plate – part 1 by Fang Shihan

The more web-savvy among us would have known by now what shows up on the Google search when you type the three words “When will Lee”.

Yes, we’re all curious to find out when Lee might die, retire, or officially step down. And for Malaysians, maybe when Mahathir might step down FOR GOOD.

But obviously trying to score an interview with both the soft-authoritarians would be close to impossible. So we got the next best thing – a conversation with a journalist who’s had extensive interaction with the Minister Mentor of Singapore, and his nemesis, Dr. M, former PM of Malaysia.

Meet Tom Plate, the American with the crazy tie and hair on the left. Also a veteran political journalist and author of “Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad” and “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew.” Yes, the angmoh journalist grilled them badasses intimately, didn’t get sued or suddenly deported and lived to tell the tale.


Conversations with Tom Plate – he did most of the talking.

Q. You mentioned in your lecture that you haven’t met any effective leader who’s not an egomaniac.

A. Reasons why Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir don’t want to step down.

–  What happens if you’re Lee Kuan Yew or Mahathir, is that you get into the position and you realise that in your own judgement, you really are the best person because the people who can replace you are, by and large, fools and knaves.

– And then you develop an expertise and so on and so forth and 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.

– There is no system in Singapore and Malaysia where ex-leaders can exert their influence constitutionally or semi-constitutionally.

– And lastly, LKY and Dr. M need their fix – like how a hardcore media junkie, like me, needs a fix and can never relax.

Q. 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?

A. Some things are worth listening to, some things are not. If you cannot get rid of them, it is better that the system creates a space for them without having to force their way in, like the case with Dr M.

Q. Under whose regime, LKY or Dr M, would you rather live under?

A. (Pauses for eight seconds. Thinks of a way to wriggle out of the question.) Neither!

Q. Under whose regime, LKY or Dr M, would you rather be a political journalist now?

A. Neither! I’ll rather be in America!

Read the full transcript of this conversation here.