What China can learn from our handling of Western media



May 7th, 2008

With China struggling with bad press in the West, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew says Beijing can learn from Singapore’s approach: 1. Give access to the Western reporters; 2. Don’t over-react to their negative coverage, just deal with them on their own terms, as businesses with bottom lines to protect; 3. Focus on building your reputation among the world’s decision makers, who will see things differently from the Western media. Over time, Singapore’s experience shows, media coverage will get more nuanced and respectful. Lee Kuan Yew was interviewed by Haslinda Amin of Bloomberg News on 29 April at the Istana. This is in an edited transcript of his remarks.

I’m ethnically Chinese, but I’m not Chinese in my thinking and my mental outlook. Because I’m a Singaporean, I’ve been exposed to a British colonial education and a British education and exposed to American education and everything. So my outlook, my mental approach is different from theirs. I would laugh at the west. Just like, you know, they say “Singapore is a fine city.” Everything is fine, no chewing gum, no litter in the streets, it’s antiseptic, it’s sterile. I don’t take offence.

People come here, people stay. It’s safe, 3 a.m. in the morning, you can go jogging by the marina, nothing happens to you, no rape, and no muggings. News gets out: “We are dull.”

Now, we are not dull, we are quite cool. We’re going to have reverse bungee, all-night dining by the river and by the marina, two integrated resorts, Formula One. How do you explain that? Whether they like it or not, they have to shift the nuances.

The Chinese should learn to do what we have done, just take the western media on the western media’s terms. I don’t tell the western media you can’t sell here. All I say is you allow me the right of reply. You are selling because you want to sell advertisements, not because you want freedom of information or because you want to enlighten my people.

So when you write an article with a little sting at the end, which is not true. I claim the right of reply. You have written 5,000 words, I claim 500 words. They refused, and in that case, I will restrict you. I will not block you because you will say I’m afraid of what you said. But I will restrict you and allow the other people, the other subscribers to photostat, fax, and now scan. So now you allow me the right of reply, I get the right of reply, the writer who puts in all these poison barbs no longer appears so smart. You can twist my arm, I’ll wring your neck. So what are the facts? So, now we have reached a certain respect for each other.

The Chinese can easily do that, but they don’t, I don’t know why. Maybe what they need is a growing middle class, educated in the west, familiar with the west, understands the rules, been to America, stayed there five years, 10 years, been all over Europe, Australia, Japan, whatever, fully understand the rules of the game and playing according to western rules, and they can win. Are they stupid? No. Are they evil? No.

You take Tibet. Who started it? It was started by the Tibetans. The March incident, March 14. I was reading Jonathan Eyal who writes for our Straits Times. He was a commentator from London. He is from I think Chatham House, a very thoughtful man. He said if they had called in the newspapers right from the word go, and said, look, this is what happened. The Economist correspondent was in Lhasa when it happened and wrote about it. He was favorable to them. The rioters started killing people and they were not reacting. The orders were not to shoot, not to take on the rioters because they didn’t want trouble. Had they engaged the west, all this would have turned out differently.

Why didn’t they? Because there was a chasm between their mental make up and that of the west. So they say all western correspondents out, that means you have got something to hide. I think that was not very wise. Supposing it was Singapore, do we say all correspondents out? No. I say look come on, stay, watch it, see what happens, see who started what.

Are they [the Chinese] stupid? They can’t do what we do? No. Its just people at the people at the top have not been educated in the west, they have not been exposed to that kind of environment, that kind of rules of the game, and are not playing by those rules of the game.

The day they build up an educated middle class, a large middle class, huge numbers of whom have been educated abroad, PHDs, MBAs in America, Europe, Japan elsewhere, and they are the people setting policies at the top, not people whose mental mindsets are from Soviet days, that day they will find they can play by the western rules and win.

Olympics protests

What the propaganda says, what the media says, and what the impressions leaders and top officials take away, are two different things. The Asian leaders will be there [at the Olympics]. There is no reason for them to offend the Chinese. I’ll be there personally and I’ve said so. I know what to expect because I’ve been there almost every year since 1976, sometimes twice a year. Those who go there, they talk about the pollution; the marathon would be disastrous for the runners, etc.

I was there for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the republic, the People’s Republic – 1949, so that was ’99. And the sky was blue. So I asked our ambassador, I said “how is that so?” He said “Oh, for two weeks, all factories stopped for this great occasion.” And there was a great parade.

I have no doubts that it will meet world standards, the venues will be world class, the airport, I was watching the Discovery Channel, bits of it, about how it will the biggest airport in the world, Terminal 3 or whatever they call it. It’s a construction marvel: British design, British architects, but their construction. Their building contractors, their engineers, executing British plans. And it’s breathtaking. And compared to [the troubled] Terminal 5 in London – it will not be like that. I’m quite sure of it.

They will have rehearsals and rehearsals, soft openings and when the great day comes, it will breeze through and they will come back and say “God, what discipline, organization, mobilization of the population can do.”

So, yes the media will go and say what human rights, this dissident arrested, that dissident put down, this fellow arrested, this chap disappeared, but people in the developing world, I can’t speak for Westerners, but Westerners at the very top are also getting to become quite sophisticated.

But in Asia and in Africa, and in the developing world, they are asking themselves, how did this country, in 30 years, from such backwardness, suddenly make this great big leap into modernity. When all the western nations say, “the system is wrong, how is it?” That is what they are going to register.

There is now growing, a certain Beijing consensus that is different from the Washington consensus: what is it you need to grow? Order, certainty, consistency, hard work, market-friendly policies, savings and investments, trade, education, and training. And they are conveying that message to all the leaders around the world and the Olympics will be another occasion.

Download the full transcript in PDF form from the Straits Times website.

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