Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist Fropm
19 November 2004
Not so long ago, an important member of India’s federal cabinet took me aside and asked why was it that Singaporeans were racist. I was floored by the question, which the official asked in all earnestness. In his long career dealing with ethnicities and communities all over the world, he said, he had never quite encountered the sheer arrogance and hubris demonstrated by Singaporeans.
“They think that they know it all,” he said, noting the absurdity of a nation of four million people taking on a country of 1.2 billion people. “Even a minor Singaporean official will talk down to someone as senior as me.”
I don’t know if I fully agree with the cabinet official. Singapore and India, in fact, have been working hard at building stronger political and economic relations: they are about to sign a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which covers not only trade but also investment and services. The Indian government hopes that Singapore, which has US$1.3 billion invested in Indian technology and telecommunications companies, will bring in an additional US$2.5 billion to help build India’s languishing infrastructure next year. Singapore, in fact, is the biggest Asian investor in India, and third only to Mauritius and the United States. Singapore – whose GDP of US$100 billion is less than a sixth of India’s – expects to attract more Indian hi-tech professionals, and also hopes that India will use it as an offshore center for financial transactions.
Unlike my friend, the Indian cabinet official, I don’t believe that this is a racist society. Indeed, I have been overwhelmed by the good will and graciousness of everyday Singaporeans. It’s easy to make friends here, and people have been uniformly and extraordinarily kind to me. In fact, I have been genuinely touched by the gestures of sweetness and thoughtfulness from everyday Singaporeans.
But this is certainly a “rules-driven society” – in the words of my friend Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean of Indian descent who was his country’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations and is now Dean of the new Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here in Singapore.
Ironically, it was my article about the new School – named in honor of Singapore founding father – that may have precipitated my involuntary departure from the Straits Times on November 16.
But before I come to a fuller examination of the episode, let me say a word or two about the paper, which will be 160 years old next year. It’s a beautifully designed paper, with 90 percent of a typical day’s edition of 200 pages consisting of ads. I was hired in March 2004 as its global-affairs columnist. I wrote columns under my own byline three or four times a week. I also wrote at least one or two longish analytical features and profiles each week. And I wrote unsigned editorials (which are called leaders here, in the British fashion) mainly on developing countries, international finance, global politics, India, and the Middle East – subjects that I’ve long covered in a journalistic career spanning four decades.
The Straits Times has no competition in Singapore. It’s owned wholly by a company called Singapore Press Holdings, whose stock is sold publicly but whose affairs are closely monitored by the government of prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s founding father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The paper is run by editors with virtually no background in journalism. For example, my direct editor was Ms Chua Lee Hoong, a woman in her mid 30s. She was an intelligence officer. Other key editors are drawn from Singapore’s bureaucracies and state security services. They all retain connections to the state’s intelligence services, which track everyone and everything.
At the newspaper, I was struck by the total absence of conversation or banter in the huge newsroom. Having spent two decades at the New York Times, including my student days in the United States, and having run my own newspaper subsequently, the Earth Times – not to mention my 18-year tenure as a columnist at Newsweek International, plus 16 years at Forbes as a contributing editor – I was accustomed to the spirited atmosphere of news rooms, not to mention disagreements and disputes.
I believe that what precipitated my termination from the paper on the morning of Tuesday, November 16, was my refusal to include in the article about the LKY School some falsehoods about Mr Mahbubani that two editors suggested that I should insert. They both claimed that Mr Mahbubani has had problems with the nation’s security services and that he was viewed as a radical when he was a student at what was then the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore).
There was no way that I could independently confirm such suggestions.
Moreover, I believe they were false. Mr Mahbubani may have been a student activist in his writings for the university newspaper – but since then has distinguished himself for nearly four decades as Singapore’s emissary in various places. The fact that he was named head of the LKY School is testimony to the high regard in which he is universally held. (His first book, Can Asians Think? was a best-seller in Asia and Europe, and also did pretty well in the United States. His next book will be published in the spring by Public Affairs in New York.)
It would have been simply inappropriate to include unsubstantiated stuff about Mr Mahbubani’s alleged radicalism during his student days. And it’s highly unlikely that he would have risen as high as he has, had he been really considered a national security risk. My own feeling is that among some of the intelligence and bureaucratic types who run the Straits Times, there isn’t universal good will toward the LKY School or its dean.
Like newsrooms everywhere, the newsroom of the Straits Times has its share of jealousies, resentments and fiefdoms.
It is also a poorly run organization. For example, my editor, Ms Lee, killed a substantial quote that I obtained from Mr Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman and publisher of the New York Times, on the grounds that he was “distracting.” When I wrote an e-mail note to Arthur, whom I’ve known for a long time, to explain why his generously given quote to me was not used, here’s what I received from Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the editor-in-chief of the Straits Times:
we do not do this on this paper, namely apologise to a newsmaker whose quote we did not use. if i were the newsmaker, i would think poorly of the paper. if the nyt uses every quote of a noteworthy newsmaker, they will need to double the pages they use daily. (Forwarded by Cheong Yip Seng/SPH on 14/11/2004 06:37 PM)
Needless to day, Mr Cheong missed my point entirely. Arthur Sulzberger had made a special effort to communicate with me from 13,000 miles away to give me a long personal statement about the New York Times and its directions. I used the quote in a column on the media, but, of course, it was edited out. I felt that in view of my own long tenure at the Times, and my friendship with Arthur, I owed him an explanation, at the very least. It was common courtesy on my part, not brown-nosing to Arthur, who doesn’t take to kindly to obsequiousness anyway.
Ms Chua, my editor, also killed two other exclusive interviews I’d obtained in recent days, mainly through my access to important people gained over four decades in international journalism. She said that what was said by Dr Supachai Panichpakadi, the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, and Mr Peter G. Peterson, Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations – and the author of a recent best-seller – was “boring.”
In fact, both were timely interviews. Dr Supachai spoke about ending textile quotas which, starting in December, will give developing nations unprecedented access to the markets of industrialized nations. And Mr Peterson spoke about the troubling US deficits, and how both Republicans and Democrats have been irresponsible about dealing with the current-account deficit that’s expected to balloon past US$600 billion this year.
Ms Chua further recommended that I should turn to a white colleague in the news room for lessons on how to ask questions. Since I didn’t come to the Straits Times to be re-educated in journalism – after a pretty distinguished career of my own – I felt that her advice was inappropriate. She was, of course, well within her rights to kill any story she wanted, but people like Dr Supachai and Mr Peterson aren’t usually accessible to inconsequential newspapers such as the Straits Times.
Be that as it may, I thought that the editor – who was trained as an intelligence officer, not as a journalist – was way out of line in recommending that, at age 56, I take lessons in journalism from a white man at the paper. Among the things that I was hired for, incidentally, was mentoring young people at the Straits Times.
Now some people I know in Singapore regard Ms Chua’s behaviour as racism. I do not. But another episode in the news room last week certainly suggested racism to me. A Chinese colleague of mine – a fellow columnist named Mr Andy Ho – had changed the thrust of my column on Diwali, which happens to be a national holiday here. While his technical editing was superb – and I told him that – what appeared in the paper subsequently simply wasn’t my voice.
When I approached Mr Ho about this, he waved me away in our newsroom like one would a persistent beggar. Perhaps he did not realise the significance of that gesture when directed at a Hindu-born person like me, however secular I may be in my sensibilities.
But he repeated his gesture in a manner that was so dismissive that I then addressed him by the only appropriate response, a barnyard epithet. I was struck, not by his gesture alone – I’ve seen worse during a career in journalism spanning four decades – but by the expression on his face. It left no doubt in my mind whatsoever that he would qualify for what my friend, the Indian cabinet official, would most certainly call a racist.
“Racist” is a hot-button word, never to be employed lightly. As an Indian-born, US-educated journalist, I have never been exposed to racial discrimination. Quite the contrary. America – supposedly still a land of great racial divides – has been generous to me, truly a land of monumental opportunities.
But here’s another anecdote concerning a Singaporean that was certainly sobering to me when it happened.
Some time ago, a recruiter from a venerable Singaporean institution looked me up in New York, my home since I was in my early twenties. I was being offered a job, but at a salary far less than a white gentleman I knew with considerably less experience. Why was that?
“Because you are an Indian,” the woman recruiter said.
“I’m an American,” I replied.
“It doesn’t matter what your nationality is,” she said. “You are a person of Indian origin, and that’s how our compensation is structured.”
Needless to say, it was an offer that I had no problems refusing.
Years later, when I finally arrived in Singapore – which was some months ago – I was quite astonished to see how many non-Singaporean Indians in professional positions were serving with coolie-like servility that they would never display back at home. What was going on here?
“You have to play by the rules,” one Indian-born colleague said. “You cannot shake the boat too much. In fact, you dare not shake it at all. The money is good here, so I can swallow an insult or two.”
The behaviour of Ms Chua, the editor, may be simply the kind of office politics that people holding power engage in every now and then. But it’s also part of a broader attitude that I detect among many Singaporeans in journalism’s top echelons here – that no one else’s record or accomplishment or opinion counts but theirs. Any divergence of view is immediately regarded as subversive dissent.
This is an important point because if Singaporeans are going to be perceived as filled with hubris and an unbending my-way-or-highway attitude, it is going to be increasingly difficult for this country to attract the talent it needs to sustain its economic ambitions. In fact, young Singaporean professionals are emigrating to Australia and Europe in record numbers because they feel stifled here.
For example, I would be very curious to see how many top-notch Indian professionals in technology and the sciences actually wind up in Singapore once the ambitious Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement is signed this month by Prime Ministers Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore and Manmohan Singh of India.
Why am I sceptical that there isn’t exactly going to be an exodus from India to Singapore? Precisely because of what that Indian cabinet minister told me. Singapore can attract all the cheap coolie labour it might want, but the word has gotten around in the Indian professional community that this isn’t the place to come for personal and cultural fulfilment.
One Indian sociologist put it very succinctly, if harshly: “Yes, Singapore will get all the white trash it wants. Yes, it will get all the brown trash it wants. Anything’s better than living in villages without electricity. But it’s going to have problems getting the brown sahibs it needs.”
Without those brown sahibs, Singapore will lose out to its neighbours in the great globalisation game. Already, its consumer prices and cost-of-living are driving potential talent to places like Bangkok, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi aren’t such bad places to live and work in either, especially if you are in the technology sector.
Singapore, in short, is facing severe competition, and it’s falling behind already. Does that mean by calibrating its culture to be more welcoming to outsiders is the answer? It’s one answer, certainly. Does that mean Singaporeans should tolerate dilution of high professional standards?
Certainly not. But why would any self-respecting professional coming to work here want to compromise his own standards?
And so back to that question: Are Singaporeans racist? Well, of course some of them are, just as surely some Americans are, and Australians and Argentineans and, dare I say, even Indians.
But Singapore lives in a unique goldfish bowl, and its own standards of economic excellence require its citizens to be more sensitive and magnanimous when it comes to dealing with outsiders. After all, Singapore has created a pretty well-functioning secular society for itself – even though one might argue that, in the cultural scheme of things, Tamils and Malays play second sitar to the Chinese.
This is such a beautiful place with such beautiful and giving people. It’s hard not to be a well-wisher. But the Straits Times as a model of dynamic, open-minded journalism? It will happen on the day that it starts to snow here on the equator.
So what am I going to do next? A book or two to complete. Plenty of museums to visit in Singapore. Certainly scores of great food joints. Nice people to spend time with, as long as I avoid the paper’s editors, of course.
Would I still recommend Singapore as a place to visit? Yes, I would, most definitely. And as a place to stay? Yes, I would, most certainly. But don’t expect to practice the journalism of fairness and forthrightness. This simply isn’t the place for that. At least, not as long as nail-pullers are running the news room. I got out before they pulled out my nails. But it still hurts.