Skip Navigation
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: 'The Western media is ... very difficult to change'

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: 'The Western media is ... very difficult to change'

Outspoken Singapore Intellectual and Minister George Yeo on Singapore’s synapses, China’s syndromes and the Western news media’s shortcomings

Syndicated Columnist Tom Plate’s Interview with George Yeo, Minister of Trade and Industry for Singapore

The following exchange took place recently in Singapore. In attendance was Minister Yeo’s press secretary and Maggy Chan, a UCLA graduate and resident of Hong Kong who has worked for the Asia Pacific Media Network, the nonprofit founded by Mr. Plate. The interview was transcribed back in Los Angeles by Mimi Lu, a UCLA philosophy student, and edited by Mr. Plate, director of UCLA’s Media Training Institute.  Copyright, Tom Plate, Media Training Institute, 2003.

Plate:  I know it’s a softball question, but why Singapore is so smart and how you are going to make it smarter?

Yeo:  Because we are in a perpetual state of insecurity and that concentrates the mind.  That keeps everyone on their toes.   It discourages us from taking too many liberties with ourselves.  So, there’s a practical sense in politics and in the culture of the place.  People know if you don’t work, you don’t eat… no one owes you anything.  If you don’t study hard, you don’t get a good education.  Your life chances are diminished.  There’s a certain intensity that flows directly from the sense of insecurity--- it is a double insecurity.  First, the insecurity of being a city-state in a region where there are much larger polities, not all completely friendly all the time and…

Plate:  …or completely stable all the time

Yeo: [nods] … or completely stable all the time.  It is also the insecurity of being a majority Chinese community in a region where the Chinese are…an economically dynamic minority in every country in Southeast Asia and sometimes discriminated against and sometimes looked down upon, because of their ethnicity.  And when they are angry at their own Chinese people, they project some of their anger on Singapore, which is kind of a Chinese headquarters in Southeast Asia.

Plate:  A kind of double insecurity…? 

Yeo:  It is gives us an edge to our existence.  It is always there, somewhere in the background.  We don’t…we don’t talk about all the time, but it is never fall beneath us.

Plate: So, it’s a survival thing.  That leads to a question that is peculiar to Singapore: When the Federation of Malaysia broke apart, the concern at the time (and I guess it was widely shared) was whether Singapore would have sufficient minimum mass to survive in the swirling currents of international economics and politics… and the answer was yes, but in part due to the brilliance, the sheer wit and the drive of the founding prime minister (Lee Kuan Yew, now senior minister in the cabinet). Hey, not every country is blessed with a genius to run it.  Now, taking nothing away from his successor, who has been very good indeed (and the Senior Minister is always very clear that success is always a team effort) ….but, nonetheless, does the fundamental issue of the size of Singapore now re-surface in a way that is troubling?

Yeo:  For this period of history, I don’t think that size is such a penalty because globalization has make things smaller.  In the process of demassification, which many people have written about, cities have became much more important in relation to larger polities.  In the age of nation states, we were severely disadvantaged because we had no hinterlands, but in the networked globalized world that we have today we are less dependent on particular hinterlands.  We have more options now.  So if we are cut off by one hinterland we can go for others.  It has opened up many more possibilities for Singaporeans.

Plate:  So, in a certain sense, then, Singapore has now intersected with history in way that, for the foreseeable future at least, should ensure its survivability in the international system.

Yeo:  I would say for this period, yes; but I don’t know now long it will last, I hope for many decades. If so, we are not in a bad position, because we now are sized appropriately.  In fact, there are certain advantages in being a city state --- we are more compact, it is easier for us to make certain decisions.  We are not subsidizing a large agricultural countryside.  We don’t have any poor people, substantially speaking, to worry about.  And when opportunities come or when dangers rear their head you can diagnose the situation quickly and make adjustments.  And we are compact and united in that, in making those adjustments quickly.  One reason we’ve succeed is not so much that we are brilliant or that we are smarter than others, but because we are more nimble… It is that we are more nimble.  So, when we see the flow changing, we quickly re-position ourselves. 

We are now in a major exercise to re-position Singapore because of the changes brought about by the end of the Cold War.  I refer specially to the entry of countries like China and India into the global marketplace--- and these are not small countries.  I mean between the two of them there are 2.3 billion people--- eager, hungry, ready to do our jobs at a fraction of our wages.  And they can do so now because of outsourcing --- because globalization has open up all these markets --- and permitted the free flow of parts and factory inputs.  This has created a new challenge for us.  A number of industry sectors are now threatened from competition from new players. We have to shift to areas where we have strength.  Except that in areas where we cannot compare to India, China or Vietnam, instead of knocking our head against the wall, we then dilute costs into cheaper industry inputs that we produce.   So, in this way we convert a problem to an advantage. 

But, it is easier said than done--- it requires restructuring, it requires a shift in the mind set of Singapore.  It is a constant exercise in pulling everyone along.  First, we explain to them that the world has changed.  There are new dangers, also new opportunities so that in order to maximize our position we have to got to adjust.  The old position has become very dangerous.

Plate:  You cannot change on a dime--- that’s over simplifying it, but you can move so much more quickly.  Prime Minister Koizumi was talking about the economic agenda in an interview in August---he was saying, I have these critics in the LDP and they want to do it this way and they wanted to do it that way and blah, blah, blah…He said, I am Prime Minister let’s just do it!  Let’s get going, let’s move forward!  You are much more tight and organized…with your political structure you can move quicker, but the Japanese like a huge aircraft carrier that takes three days to turn five degrees. 

Yeo:  But, I would not underestimate the Japanese.

Plate:  No…

Yeo:  Yes, they may be slow to change because of the nature of the society and the premium they place on consensus and group behavior, but we should not underestimate their capabilities.  Multinational Japanese companies are performing much better than the Japanese economy as a whole because they’ve successfully globalized their operations.  They access cheap factory inputs from Southeast Asia, China and so on.  So, they are ok.  If you look at, say, the products made by Sony including the camera which you are now using…

Plate:  Sure…

Yeo:  These are the products of high civilizations with deep technological achievements.  They continued to produce these high quality things, so they should never be underestimated.  If you look at it historically, they are slow to change.  But, golly, when they finally decide to change, they do so like a shift in a laser beam. I would not write out Japan and I would not underestimate or underrate their ability to response to changing situations. 

Plate: If you look at the sudden upsurge in Chinese diplomacy, and to a lesser extent Japanese diplomacy, which until recently has been sort of nonexistent, suddenly, it seems that Asian diplomacy is much more active; certainly, the big players are more active.  Do you agree with that?

Yeo:  Well, it reflects their growing economic weight.  Just last year alone, China accounted for half the growth of global trade.  The Chinese economy is growing very strongly. If you add together the GDPs of the countries of East Asia, it is more or less the GDP of the U.S.   In 30 years time it will be much larger than the GDP of the U.S. or Europe for that matter.   It is natural that growing economic weight would be accompanied by a growing, stronger political voice.  I think that is to be expected
Plate:  But just go back to China and Japan and just leave South Asia out for the moment, because it is complicated.   But take just China and Japan, Japan is the number two economic super power--- I mean, it drops another 10% and it’s still number two.  But it is kind of a little bit coming out of the shadow of the US.  Whereas China is a little bit coming out of the shadow of Mao in a certain sense... and Westernizing, to some extent, its diplomacy.  The two things coming to together, I think, the two of them [Japan and China] getting together and getting involved in some of the issues is, on the whole, a huge plus. 

Yeo:  If we look back to the original causes of the division of the Korean peninsula, it was the result of the Cold War, and the dividing line between North and South Korea was the really dividing line between two worlds.  Today, it is no longer in the interest of the surrounding powers, China, the U.S., Japan, Russia, to have continued conflict in the Korean Peninsula.  Now the objectives are different, particularly in respect to what we’d rather see the government in North Korea doing and the attitudes towards its re-unification.  But no country in the region wants there to be trouble in the Korean peninsula.  So, the strategic environment has become much more favorable compared to in the past, and that will create the basis of what one might hope to be a long term solution to the problem in the Peninsula.  The big change in all of this is the rise of China.  The rise of China is now like another sun entering the solar system.  It affects the entire geographical and magnetic field--- gravitational and magnetic field.  It affects every planet, every asteroid

Plate:  That’s a great analogy!

Yeo:   I can be dangerous, because if you don’t get your trajectory right you will crash into the sun…the suns… one of the two suns.  But, if you get your trajectory right, there’s much more orbital freedom, which you would have never had before that.  So, everybody is recalculating.  From the viewpoint of the Japanese, they’ve given up that they could remain number one in Asia.  They accept now that China will resume its historical position, but they have no intentions of becoming a tributary state of China.  So, all their diplomacy is geared towards managing a China, which is going to become stronger and more powerful in Asia, and preserving maximum freedom for Japan, which means having strong links to Southeast Asia, maintaining Japan’s strategic relationship with the U.S. and an emerging policy that secures adequate supplies for Japan’s industrial and other needs.  China has become an obsession in Japanese thinking.  And it is a process that is ongoing.  I don’t think they have quite found equilibrium yet.  For the time being everyone prefers to keep his options open.

Plate: I think you are right, it is an obsession.  I get the feeling that they haven’t quite totally settled it.   But as you say there’s this gravitational pull…  I wonder: is the apology issue going to haunt Asian politics forever?

Yeo:  For Japanese Conduct during the Second World War?

Plate:  Yes…

Yeo:   No, I think that time will resolve all problems.  The historical memories will remain and sometimes these memories will endure for genuine heartfelt reasons and/or for political reasons.  It remains a point of residual unhappiness right now.

Plate: Could you talk a little bit into the role of the media in today’s society.  In terms of describing Singapore’s media to my students, I use the term “developmental journalism”.   Where instead of it being the adversarial relationship, it’s more like a partnership where the government and the media set clear social goals.  My favorite example is, “Smile at a Tourist Month”… the campaign you had two years ago was it?  There was a poll that showed that tourists like Singapore, but when they came here Singaporeans would not smile at them.  I joked to my students, could you imagine doing that in New York!  You have the New York Times, the New York Post, and the Daily New Day, saying Smile at a Tourist…,  The result: they would be throwing things at tourists--- it’s a different kind of a culture.  And I came in the midst of that campaign and people were smiling at me!!!! … In fact somewhere between the media system that you have and the largely vulgar commercial system that we have, is an ideal media system.  Now, let me just ask you this about today’s Western Media.  Do you still see Western media as continuing doing the things the way they have done them, or will it change; or has it gotten worst?

Yeo:  The Western media is part of the Western Political system, and it is very difficult to change.  I am not judging whether it is good or bad for Western societies.  Asian societies --- and you got to be specific here because Singapore is different from China and Taiwan is a different situation… Japan is a different situation … but in various Asian societies, the media are at a different balance point.  Take recently this summer’s big march in Hong Kong.  Half a million people demonstrating peacefully…it was almost like a Sunday afternoon walk to raise funds.  People were disciplined and there was no violence.  And the media helped campaign for the demonstration.  But I was flipping some of the magazines and they provided cartoons showing how pies were being thrown at [Hong King Chief Executive] Tung Chee Hwa’s face--- I mean they were all caricatures, but they all mocked the Chief Executive. And I heard that when he attended an international soccer match involving a team from Liverpool, when he walked into the stadium, he was jeered including by young teenagers.

Plate:  Jeered?

Yeo:  Jeered.  And this was captured on television and replayed in Hong Kong. I think in some Asian societies there is a lot of discomfort when you pillory a leader this way.  However you may dislike a leader, there are certain norms and prerequisites, which all of us would feel much more comfortable. The situation would be much different in American and Britain.  When I was studying in Cambridge, I remember how the last day the students threw paper airplanes at the professor.  The professor just laughed and he took it all in good spirits.  But the Asian students in class where horrified.   I mean… I don’t know if they do that in UCLA, but…

Plate:  [laughs] … just at me…

Yeo:  Well, depending on how you were raised, depending on the family you were raised.  I think you have different feeling towards the way criticisms are expressed and put across.  In the same way all societies need the media to disseminate information and to provide a mirror to monitor those in a position of responsibility.  But, how that is done must somehow conform to logical norms and logical comfort levels.

Plate:  In other words the media is a reflection of the culture which it operates and to just make your point in a different way.  With regards to my own daughter, for instances who is now sixteen.  The things she said to her dad are totally normal, obnoxious sixteen year old behavior in the United States, but in Singapore or at least in other societies it wouldn’t be tolerated. 

Yeo:  Well, the norms are different…

Plate:  Right.  But I sometimes say to myself--- I wish I had raised my daughter in Singapore! It would be easier… but that doesn’t reflect itself in the classroom or in the media itself.   The permissiveness is part of the overall culture

Yeo:  But sometimes it expresses itself, this cultural norm, expresses itself in rather charming ways.  If you visit a McDonalds in Singapore, and you have an elderly man or women serving you the kids would address them as “uncles” and “aunties”.  I mean they were not related, but because they were older, even though they were serving them a certain honorific address is due to them.  I find it nice.  I find it nice, I find it charming.

Plate:  And in America kids mainly walk all over older people. But then, of course you pay a price.  Singapore’s media is highly intelligent.  I was asked recently by my thesis advisor from Princeton, who is now 72, recently retired; He said, Tom, you travel widely in Asia, what is the best English language newspaper; The Straits Times?  And I answered, on the whole, yes.

Yeo:  Well, they take your columns!

Plate:  Right, they take my columns… a true sign of stupidity! Despite that singular error, its coverage of Southeast Asia is fantastic; it does Southeast Asia better than anybody.

Yeo:  Yes, but it is partly because we are small.  When you are small you cannot be parochial.   When you are big, you cannot follow the interests of the world beyond the shores of your country.

Plate:  Well, that is a nice way of describing American parochialism.  But, if you look at the Chinese media system I think one of the big issues there is they have got to figure out how it’s going to play out. 

Yeo:  The media in China is changing dramatically…. The change is partially brought about by technology, which makes it very difficult for the central authorities to control everything.  So when there were reports about SARS spreading in China and they were suppressing the official media, the Internet took off and after a while the central government knew it was losing creditably.  So, it is not as if people are ignorant or unaware because there’s are alternatives now.

Plate:  I see
Yeo: … You cannot prevent them from assessing information available anywhere else in the world.  But what they are very worried about in China is their ability to get official messages across  and down to the last village.  That is why they are very insistent on controlling the main media.  I used this analogy once.  It is a little like the Catholic Church.  When the Vatican pronounces--- and I am Roman Catholic so you know where I am coming from:  So, when it makes a pronouncement, CNN, New York Times, BCC will report in a particular way.  But the Church has it own particular channels to make sure that down to the last parish, down to the last church, the official pronouncements are put out in a clear and undiluted way.  So, in my church, for instance, we have the Catholic News.  I want to know what the Vatican’s views are, I read the Catholic News.  If I want to know what the New York Times thinks about the Vatican, I read the New York Times or the International Herald Tribune.  For a big country like China where there is a cacophony all the time, they need to put the official views out.  So when they got into the WTO they conducted over a period of time the most incredible campaign of mass education ever seen anywhere in the world.  Down to a very low level, ordinary Chinese knew that once China joined the WTO there would be great implications on their everyday lives.  Due to this they are probably the best informed population on the WTO --- to their credit.  But, mind you, it could be cast both ways, because sometimes when they decide to not give emphasis to particular subjects and it’s blanked out …..  Take SARS for instances --- from no coverage to full coverage.  And… boy when the started to covering SARS, they covered it!  Every evening, they just pumped it out --- mass education… that’s how they were able to control the epidemic very quickly.  

Plate:  With the SARS issue, if it hadn’t been for the remedy of the Internet the inflection iwould have been much worst.  The cover up went back even earlier then we know on the SARS issue, and that has international implications.

Yeo:  WelI, I am not sure if there was a cover up, but they wanted to give emphasis to the leadership change and the World Health Organization did say that it was at a time when atypical flues were common in China anyhow.  It is a big country so there are all kinds of strange things happening all the time. Until certain trigger points were reached up in the center, they did not react.  But, that is how the system operates; it has got the weakness of its strength and the strength of its weakness.  You can’t have it both ways

Plate:  But you think that the media environment is changing dramatically.

Yeo:  Right, because of technology and globalization.  They sell more hand phones in China than any country on earth.  They probably use every hand phone more intensely than any other society on earth.  You go to their shops and you see the new gadgets they have in connection with hand-phones, PDA’s and so on.  It is un-stoppable.  They can’t stop this communication revolution.  They are not stopping it.  In fact they are encouraging it!  They’ve overtaken Japan as the world’s second biggest market for PCs and within a few years there will be more Internet users in China than anywhere else on earth, including the US.  That is the new reality we are facing --- and the Communist Party will have adjust to that new reality. 

Plate:  They’ve given up trying to control the Internet? Basically you are, to use a phrase you used earlier in the interview, “hitting your head against a brick wall.”  

Yeo:  Right. Before they enunciated the policy, some years ago, they sent a team down here.  It was a very high powered team, sent down by a very senior member of the Politburo who was in charge of all media and broadcast.  So, he came down with a delegation of three other ministers and they spent a week in Singapore.  I was at that time the Minister for Information. I was his host.

Plate:  You remember roughly what year this was?

Yeo:  It was 1995 or 96.  And by the time they left, they knew more about me than I knew about myself!

Plate: [chuckles]

Yeo:  So, I was very intrigued.  I wondered why… why this deep interest in what we did here in Singapore.  A few months later they put out this new official policy position on the Internet, then I realized why.

Asia Institute