The politics of personalities: Book reviewers and panellists

Dear friends, some of you have asked me how and why I asked George Yeo to write a review for the book, SR Nathan to be the guest-of-honour at the launch, Donald Low and Manu Bhaskaran to join me on a panel, etc.

There was actually a lot of thought put into all this by the publishers–the Hong Kong University (HKU) Press and the National University of Singapore (NUS) Press–and myself. And at the end of the day, we are all absolutely delighted with the kind words and support we received from these distinguished people.

Let me start with the reviewers of the book. We had initially wanted to get three reviewers–one foreigner, one Singaporean, and one Malaysian.

The first person I approached was Simon Long. Simon is a very senior journalist at The Economist. He was the Asia editor when we first met, and commissioned my very first few pieces for the newspaper. Today he is “Banyan”, writing our paper’s Asia column. Simon readily agreed, much to my delight.

While it was great to have Simon’s review on the book, we knew we couldn’t just have “one white guy”. We didn’t want the book to be perceived as some Western, neo-colonial interpretation of Malaysia/Singapore.

So I was thrilled when George Yeo agreed. Mr Yeo is probably the politician in Singapore with the broadest appeal across the political divide. He is also highly respected the world over, both regionally and internationally.

Finally, we wanted to get one Malaysian to write a review. Given the occasional animosity between Malaysia and Singapore, we don’t want the book to be perceived in Malaysia as an ivory tower, Singapore-centric view of the region. I have spent a tremendous amount of time on the ground in Malaysia, interviewing hundreds of people, but that hard research could be undermined by negative perceptions.

However, the problem is that Malaysia currently faces the worst ideological divide in the country’s history. According to everybody I spoke with, every prominent Malaysian has stuck his/her flag on one side of the political divide. There is no famous person with appeal akin to George Yeo in Singapore.

And so–we made the decision not to have any Malaysian reviewer on the back. In our assessment, the risk of being seen as aligned with one side or another was higher than the risk of being seen as a Singapore-centric narrative.

I hope I don’t come to regret this. (You can read the final reviews here).

For the launch itself, the first two names almost wrote themselves: Donald Low and Manu Bhaskaran, who have become good friends and inspirations over the past few years. We’ve spent a fair bit of time shooting the breeze, talking politics over beers, so I was confident our rapport would make for a good session.

However, after chatting with a few people, I realised that I also wanted to invite somebody a bit closer to the establishment. Donald, Manu and I will probably all be regarded as non-establishment (not necessarily “anti”, but just “non”).

And so I was absolutely chuffed when Manu invited SR Nathan on my behalf, and he accepted.

There were several people who questioned the choice of Mr Nathan as guest-of-honour. I think they have an aversion to anybody perceived as close to the PAP; they would have rather just had Donald, Manu and myself speaking about my book. But that would have been a slightly narrow field, given the similarities in our socio-political views.

My feeling is that it is best to always have as broad and inclusive a conversation as possible. That means involving people from different points of our political spectrum: non-establishment, and establishment. As with my writing, I hope that any events I organise and participate in will always be balanced and reasoned. Most importantly, this will make my writing appeal to as wide an audience as possible, which is what I hope for from an intellectual point of view–and, no doubt, it’s what makes good commercial sense too (that said, one might argue that partisan channels and viewpoints, not moderate middle-of-the-road ones, are currently more successful in some democracies such as the US).

In any case, Mr Nathan made a wonderful speech that Sumana, my best friend, helped write. 🙂

On his way out, Mr Nathan just jokingly scolded me about one thing: he didn’t like my portrayal of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). He felt I was a bit too sympathetic towards them. He says he wants to have a word someday. I look forward to it.

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2 responses

  1. To be a Prime Minister, one need to have majority seats in the palniamert. It is not easy to secure more then 41 seats in next general election. It is better to go for the post of President. Mr Tan must make sure that you don’t have any “black mark” in your career record. Otherwise those shamless people will dig it out and embrass you.

  2. Very amazing. We’ve got a Govt that is psieresrovgly taking the easy and less messy way to govern, but still insist on paying themselves the highest remuneration in world political office.More amazing, they’ve refined the strategy to an art of deftly getting others to take the rap for any mistake they’ve committed, and some more get away from it without even a scratch. Dun know how to govern, dun wan to govern, for God’s sake, move over and let others take over the real business of Governance, without the pretense and hypocrisy.Too long in power, the PAP has lost the passion and conviction to govern, they’re getting more and more lost, getting more and more weary, all showing up on their faces. They dun have the competence of the oldguards in forward planning expertise, only living one day at a time, only have a time framework of one political term of 4 or 5 years at atime, beyond that they are either blur or dun care at all.That’s the signal this Govt is giving us.

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