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Final Chapter: Far Eastern Economic Review versus Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-01

THEIR traditional skepticism notwithstanding, journalists can be a sentimental bunch, especially when a publication dies or is being sliced into a skeleton of its old self. This past weekend, after an unexpected announcement that the Far Eastern Economic Review would no longer continue as a weekly but as a monthly journal of opinion, eulogies and fond reminiscences cascaded from media people in many parts of the world about the 58-year-old Hong Kong-based publication.

They also denounced Dow Jones and Company, the owners of FEER, for dismissing the venerable magazine's 80 journalists on the grounds that, as a business, a weekly no longer made economic - and perhaps even journalistic - sense. When aggressive daily newspapers and by-the-minute Internet news sites have pretty much made leisurely weekly reviews seem redundant and repetitious, why would Dow Jones - a poorly managed company already struggling to sustain its main brand, The Wall Street Journal - want to sustain a weekly that had little to show except smart design?

That journalists would fret over the Dow Jones management's radical decision is understandable, although the editors and reporters being let go are mostly young enough to find employment elsewhere. What struck me as peculiar, however, was how some media stars managed to extend their vilification to Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

They suggested that the end of FEER could be attributed to the strong - and successful - legal actions taken against it by Mr Lee when he was Singapore's prime minister a long time ago. Because the government won a libel suit and a financial judgement against the magazine, it had no choice but to start pandering to "Mr Lee and his ilk" - as one commentator put it - in order to be sold in Singapore, where a large number of its subscribers were at the time. That genuflection before the authorities here triggered what, over the next two decades, became a steady unwillingness to ask hard questions of politicians, according to some media mavens.

In other words, Mr Lee is being held accountable for the editorial weakening of a publication whose policies and projects he could scarcely have influenced. Why would he want to have bothered with such a task, anyway? He had a larger goal - that of building a new nation out of a swampy, mosquito-infested patch of land that was bathed in history but bereft of natural resources.

In an interview that he gave me for a television documentary I once produced on Singapore, the then prime minister said something that's still fresh in my mind. "We took the world as we saw it," Mr Lee told me. "And then we went on to shape it for the benefit of our people."

The manner in which Mr Lee and his colleagues in the People's Action Party went about shaping modern Singapore wasn't exactly understood - nor appreciated - by many international journalists. It's hardly a secret that in much of the world - then as now - the journalistic fraternity largely tends to hold views that are left of centre. It's fashionable to be left because the subtext is one of supposed compassion toward the world's dispossessed - while writers of centrist or rightist persuasion are assumed to be running dogs of capitalism.

But it's capitalism that has sustained the world's media institutions - including ones that champion the cause of the poor in editorial columns - just as unstinting adherence to it could be said to have resulted in today's economically dynamic Singapore.

That's why I'm not entirely surprised by the renewed vilification of Singapore's founding father. Mr Lee was never a favourite of international media mavens - not because of his insistence on accuracy in the press but because of the approach he took in nation building. Today's generation of journalists - whose understanding of history seems to be skewed, if not slight - may not realise how much Mr Lee went against the conventional political and economic precepts of the post-colonial era in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those precepts were largely leftist. The heroes of that time were India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, and China's Mao Xedong and Zhou EnLai. And their prescriptions for economic and social development called for vast Statism and vaster bureaucracies - which ultimately led not to sustainable economic development but vaster cohorts of poverty.

In a conversation last Friday, Mr Youssouf Ouedraogo, the Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso, told me how much more different contemporary Africa - a collection of 52 mostly failed states - would have been had the dominant politics of the continent of 700 million people not been leftist during the critical post-independence years.

"That's why we now look to Singapore as a model," Mr Ouedraogo said, adding that surely it was the Mentor Minister's emphasis on first building strong institutions and instruments of public governance that generated strong impetus for economic growth. He acknowledged, too, that the confidence on the part of the international investment community concerning Singapore in the last three decades also flowed from Mr Lee's continuing emphasis on cracking down on corruption, the bane of Third World countries.

That model of nurturing economic development and eliminating corruption before diversifying political participation is being hailed as a sound one in today's era of growing globalisation. Some years after my TV interview with the then Prime Minister, I heard him speak at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. A leading US investment banker asked: Wasn't the Singapore model of economic and political development needlessly stifling dissent?

Mr Lee's response was that he always accepted "responsible criticism."

Having covered much of the Third World during my own journalistic career of four decades, I couldn't agree more. I'm not so sure that potentially violent demonstrations against big business, or physically obstructing the building of dams that could benefit poor countries, is a more productive strategy for sustainable economic and social development.

But demonstrations and loud protests are grist for what the late Marshall McLuhan, the guru of modern communications, called the "cool media." Quieter forms of policy making that focus on strengthening economic instruments for growth, and for developing better forms of municipal governance, are insufficiently sexy for the media. That's why Singapore has gotten a bad rap in the international media over the years.

There's an irony in all this, of course. The very Singapore that the global media shunned or shunted aside in their coverage is now being sought out as a place from where to generate regional journalism. There are now more international media organisations based here than ever before. Like foreign investment bankers and traders, journalists are not beyond wanting to be based in zones of comfort and security, no matter how volatile their business or areas of coverage.
The other irony is that the days of media bashing - if indeed it was that - by the Singapore authorities are over. Indeed, Singapore is actively inviting global media organisations to come here. Just yesterday, Mrs Soundarya Sukumar of the Media Development Authority talked enthusiastically about putting Singapore at the "forefront of the media age." MDA was the result of the merger of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, the Films and Publications Department, and the Singapore Film Commission (SFC), a little more than a year ago.
The idea is to develop Singapore into a "vibrant global media city as well as a creative economy and a connected society," Mrs Sukumar said.
It's an idea that Dubai - another place once blackballed by the international media for its political restrictions - is vigorously pursuing as well. Ms Gaiti Rabbani of Pakistan was among those responsible for developing Dubai's flourishing Media City, an enclave that's attracted virtually every one of the world's leading broadcasting companies, and several major publications as well.

"In order to cover globalisation, you've got to be a global player," she told me. "For media organisations that means being a part of regional communities from where such coverage can be undertaken efficiently, economically and effectively."

In the old days - when publications like the Far Eastern Economic Review - were in their prime, the "regional communities" that Ms Rabbani spoke about were called "listening posts." Thus, Beirut was a listening post for the Middle East, much of which was inaccessible to foreign journalists. Hong Kong was a listening post for China, which rarely gave visas to international media representatives. Bangkok was a listening post for South-east Asia during the Vietnam War.

The "listening" was done by foreign correspondents usually over generous tumblers of whiskey offered by diplomats who had their own axe to grind. "Sources" often meant other journalists, a practice that allowed scribes to turn in hefty expense accounts.

Today's "listening" is being done in Singapore and Dubai somewhat differently. For competitive reasons, if nothing else, journalists need to go out and report the news thoroughly instead of being merely lounge lizards. They need to cultivate credible sources. They need to conduct in-depth research, particularly in finance and economics. And they need to practice verifiable journalism.

But wait. Didn't Mr Lee Kuan Yew urge those very things some two decades back? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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