Thu, May 27, 2010
my paper
LKY, S'pore blockbuster director

By Rachel Chan

FOR veteran American journalist Tom Plate, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is "the director of the blockbuster that is Singapore".

Mr Plate gives his take on "this iconic and fashionably authoritarian director" in his new book, Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew - Citizen Singapore: How To Build A Nation.

The 211-page book is based mainly on a four-hour exclusive interview that took place over two days last July.

As the approach to writing the book was based on a dialogue, the interview subject had to be interesting for there to be content, explained Mr Plate, who is well-known for his syndicated columns about Asia in the Los Angeles Times.

"Now, is LKY interesting? No problem. He's the easiest (person to interview) in the history of the world," Mr Plate, 66, told my paper yesterday. "You don't need small talk, you don't have to butter him up, you don't have to bring flowers and perfume and (things) like that. You go in and boom, let's go."

Mr Plate, who has interviewed Mr Lee on more than three occasions between the 1990s and now, is said to be the only American journalist that Mr Lee has granted so much interview time to.

While he has written a number of weighty articles quoting Mr Lee's views on policy and issues at large, Mr Plate wanted to write an accessible book "that would potentially appeal to a reader of Time and Newsweek, or The Economist or Financial Times, whether they be Singaporean or not".

The book is written in Mr Plate's trademark humorous, witty and candid style.

"You (the reader) get to be the fly on the wall and, in the course of this conversation, you trace through a lot of his thinking," he said.

The conversations in the book cover a wide range of topics. There are serious discussions on philosophy, international relations and governance.

But a more personal side of the MM is revealed towards the end, when the men touch on more intimate issues: age, Mr Lee's wife, his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

During a break, author and interviewee even banter about what Mr Lee would do if he were to take on the post of United Nations secretary-general.

"I try to get a bit more of (Mr Lee) as a man, as well as a brainiac and as a leader," said Mr Plate, who also described the politician as warm, trusting and open.

When asked what he uncovered about Mr Lee this time, Mr Plate said: "Because I've had more time with him, I began to see him in a slightly different light. So, I felt more educated. Not that there were departures in his views - he's very consistent - but I began to understand certain nuances and subtleties."

Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew is the first book in a series called Giants Of Asia, which will subsequently feature Malaysia's former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

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