Making HARD TALK is thirsty work

Mar 02, 2017 09.00AM |

by Bertha Henson

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong sipped from his teacup at least nine times in the half-hour interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur. It made me wonder if someone off-camera had re-filled his cup during the interview. It must surely be drained by sip No. 4.

It was a pretty disappointing interview. Or rather, Mr Sackur had pretty disappointing questions. They included the Western media’s evergreen favorites about freedom of the press, Internal Security Act, one-party rule and criminalisation of homosexual sex. Does it outrage anyone that he presumed so much about the rightness of his views? That he’s stuck in the old colonial mould of suggesting what other countries should do?

PM Lee’s riposte was masterly: “I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate. Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run?” But before he said that, he turned around what Mr Sackur had said about how UK politicians suggested that Britain not be restrained on human rights issues when seeking a trade deal with Singapore. He said that Mr Sackur himself didn’t seem restrained in his questioning. It took a while for the BBC man to realize that the jibe was intended for him.

(In fact, I found it amusing how Mr Sackur tried to talk up Britain after Brexit. Still a “major power”. You would think that countries are lining up to trade with Britain, rather than with the European Union.)

Even as he went on about how Singapore does not have a two-party system which he thought should be in place for a functioning democracy, Mr Sackur suggested that the PM himself should take the lead in influencing people to take Section 377A, on the criminalisation of homosexual sex, off the books.

How ironic! On the one hand, he dripped sarcasm with his inferences about an autocratic G. But on the other, he was telling the PM that having the section is wrong and the PM should delete it to show that Singapore has changed.

I wish the PM replied: “Change to look good to who? You?” But he was rather more polite, saying instead that it is not for the government to lead on moral values. Even those which did on these issues, such as Britain, France and the United States, have had to deal with conservative protestors.

He made a similar point when he said that the world must embrace diversity and differences in values, outlook and priorities so that countries can prosper together. There is no “monopoly on virtue and wisdom”.

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There was a time when I thought that these evergreen issues made for challenging questions. But I know the answers so well now that I wonder why the Western media don’t learn from their own news archives and their past interviews.

Singapore has one dominant political party in Parliament because the people made it so. That is, unless Mr Sackur can prove that nefarious measures have been taken to rig the vote or that Singaporeans are somehow too frightened to vote for an opposition politician. If he did enough research, he would know that the Opposition didn’t do too badly in the popular vote in recent elections, especially in 2011, and that they have so few seats because we used the British first-past-the-post system.

I guess to many people elsewhere, it is inconceivable that one party could get so many votes. (Here’s where the different values, outlook and priorities come in.)

I wish he asked instead about whether the G is using its power and authority to keep talent out of opposition parties. Or whether complacency, corruption and inefficiency would set in if one political party holds power for too long. On freedom of the press, I wish he asked how restrictions such as licensing are compatible with the Internet age when, as PM Lee said, there is already so much access.

Of course, the old hoary chestnut, the Internal Security Act, was brought up. Mr Sackur didn’t say so but anyone could tell that he was thinking of political prisoners. PM Lee noted that those detained under the Act, in the recent decade, have been people with terrorist links. Now that’s quite difficult to rebut at a time when security is such a big concern, even in Britain. Mr Sackur didn’t press the point.

The points he did press were personal. Like whether the PM Lee would think differently about 377A if one of his children is gay and whether he would accept a non-Chinese – Mr Sackur had in mind DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam –as Prime Minister. PM Lee deflected both questions, focusing instead on what society could countenance and how the next generation of leaders would be the ones to pick the next PM. I half expected Mr Sackur to ask about the elected presidency being reserved for non-Chinese, but he didn’t. I guess his research didn’t include current domestic events.

Mr Sackur’s parting shot was about whether PM Lee, after more than 12 years in power, would go “on and on”. The PM replied he had already said he wouldn’t. (He’s stepping down after the next election.) Frankly, if the interview was with his late father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Sackur would have gotten hauled over the coals for not doing his homework.


Featured image by Facebook user Young Leadership Foundation-Cambodia.

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