HARDtalk host: DPM Tharman dodged 'Sackur punch' at symposium

The last time Mr Stephen Sackur squared off with a Singapore politician, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam earned rave reviews for how he fielded questions from a man regarded as one of the world's toughest interviewers.

Mr Sackur, host of the BBC's flagship interview programme, HARDtalk, earned that reputation from conducting 30-minute one-on-one inquisitions that have seen celebrity agent Max Clifford storm off mid-show and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo threaten legal action.

Not that Mr Tharman was fazed.

The most memorable exchange at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland in May 2015 was perhaps Mr Sackur pressing Mr Tharman on whether he believed in the concept of a social safety net.

Without flinching, Mr Tharman replied: "I believe in the notion of a trampoline."

It left the crowd and his interviewer in stitches and earned him plaudits back home.

Read also: Safety net? More like a trampoline, says DPM Tharman

But Mr Sackur, 53, told The New Paper in an interview last week that Mr Tharman would have faced a more "challenging" test had their interview taken place on his home turf - the BBC HARDtalk studios - rather than the more academic setting of the symposium.

The British journalist said: "(The symposium is) supposed to be a more relaxed and more discursive format. It is different from HARDtalk. Of course it would have been different if it was a HARDtalk interview.

"It would have been more challenging, because that is the nature of the HARDtalk format, as opposed to the symposium, which is a more academic gathering."

While Mr Tharman may have dodged a Sackur punch, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be following his predecessors, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong, in taking up the HARDtalk challenge.

The episode will air on the BBC (StarHub TV Ch 701) tomorrow at 12.30pm, 5.30pm and 11.30pm.

Previewing the interview, which took place here on Thursday, Mr Sackur told TNP he would be speaking to Mr Lee about the Singapore experience, homosexuality and Section 377A of the Penal Code, tying human rights to trade agreements, the impact of new US President Donald Trump and what a post-Brexit United Kingdom can learn from Singapore.


He added that it is important for the world to reflect on Singapore's rise as "one of the world's great economic success stories".

Mr Sackur, who has helmed HARDtalk since 2006, said: "That is the basis of coming to Singapore to meet the Prime Minister and trying to tease out what Singapore has done, how it has done it, what the upsides and downsides of the Singapore experience are and to what extent it is translatable to the rest of the world."

That notion of translatability has become more relevant to his home nation, with several prominent figures in the UK both touting Singapore as a post-Brexit model as well as cautioning against the championing of the Republic as a template.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell of the opposition Labour Party has accused British Prime Minister Theresa May of "wanting to turn Britain into a Singapore of the North Atlantic".

Meanwhile, the single biggest individual donor to the Brexit campaign, billionaire Peter Hargreaves, has praised former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and said Singapore should be a model for the UK.

Mr Sackur said: "Some cite Singapore as the model we should pursue - committed to truly open global trading relationships, low taxes and a deregulated economy.

"People say let us be more like Singapore, without really knowing what Singapore is and how Singapore works.

"So that is going to be one of the things that intrigues me in my conversation with the Prime Minister, to try and tease out what it is that Singapore has done and whether it is translatable, and whether he believes there is anything Singapore can teach the UK as we contemplate our post-Brexit future."

Another thing that intrigues Mr Sackur is a chance to interview Mr Trump.

The Cambridge and Harvard-educated journalist has retweeted online comments urging Mr Trump to take his place on the HARDtalk hot seat.

Mr Sackur said: "It would be true to say that every journalist in the world right now would like an interview with Mr Trump, and the opportunity to put him on HARDtalk and have a full half-hour interview with him would be fantastic.

"We would love it, our audience would love it, but whether Mr Trump would love it is perhaps another question."


This article was first published on Feb 28, 2017.
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