Since 2012, the Straits Times picks someone (or two people in the case of 2013) as the Asian of the Year. This year, ST chose to name Mr Lee Kuan Yew as the Asian of the Year. I think he totally doesn’t deserve this accolade. Before I explain why, let me state that I am not one of those who vehemently hate Mr Lee. In fact, I have immense respect for him. Lest I be branded a treacherous traitor by some erudite member of the most sagacious Media Literacy Council, let me state that I too, along with the whole nation, mourned Mr Lee’s passing.
If that is the case, then how can I make such a sacrilegious claim that Mr Lee doesn’t deserve to be named Asian of the Year 2015? The earliest mention of the ST Asian of the Year that I can find on the Internet is a media release for the Asian of the Year 2013, which stated that “Every December, the editors of The Straits Times pick a person whose work or actions have significantly impacted the Asian continent in the 12 months past (emphasis mine).”
So it would seem that whoever is named Asian of the Year would have had to actually have done some things that affected the lives of people in Asia, maybe change the developmental trajectory of the continent, improved its economy dramatically, or something. I am sure being bedridden, dying and lying in state don’t count.
But ST clearly disagrees with me. The citation for the award said, “No other Asian has made such an impact as Mr Lee had this year.” Like… seriously? Unless some amazeballs deals were struck amongst the leaders of Asia who attended Mr Lee’s state funeral, I seriously can’t fathom what sort of impact Mr Lee had on Asia in the 12 months past. What impact did Mr Lee have on the 1.4 billion people living in China this year? What impact did Mr Lee have on the 1.3 billion people living in India in the 12 months past (granted, some Indian villages did mourn Mr Lee’s passing)? Heck, what impact did Mr Lee have on ASEAN in 2015? The haze probably had a greater impact on the whole of ASEAN than Mr Lee.
To get around this cognitive dissonance, it seems that the editors of ST has very sneakily changed the rules of the game. The news report for this year’s Asian of the the Year says that the “award recognises an individual or organisation that has contributed significantly to improving lives at home or in the wider neighbourhood.” That is a statement I cannot disagree with. But whatever Mr Lee did to impact Asia, he did so many years ago. If this was 1978, when Mr Lee first met Deng Xiaoping, or 1989 when Mr Lee articulated a view of human rights and “Asian values” that responded to Western criticism post the Tiananmen incident, then yes, it is perhaps justifiable for Mr Lee to be deserving of being the Asian of the Year. Because those were his heydays. Him at his prime. At his best.
But this year, I think it is fair to say that Mr Lee really only had an impact on Singapore and Singaporeans. He did galvanise Singaporeans to reflect on the significance of our golden jubilee. It also sparked various heated discussions about our history. And it gave us the terrible episode of Amos Yee (eesh…). Beyond our shores though, other than the tributes that were sent and the commentaries that were written, the actual impact that Mr Lee had on Asia this year was… probably not a lot.
And that is why I think it is sickeningly sycophantic of ST to bestow posthumously the Asian of the Year award to Mr Lee. It is an insult to the award. Not that I think many people beyond Singapore actually gave a hoot about this award in the first place, but I am sure now people will think of the award as a joke. In fact, I am sure if Mr Lee were buried rather than cremated, he would be turning in his grave right now. If he were still alive, he would probably be the first to be chastise ST for such vainglory.
Don’t get me wrong. Mr Lee is worth remembering. He is worth honouring. That, I truly believe. But let’s not cheapen his memory by pulling such stunts. Don’t need to chut this kind of pattern. There are other far better ways.
Like raising the journalistic standards, for example. Why? Because in 1979, in a speech to senior civil servants, he essentially condemned the journalistic standards of the Straits Times. He said, “For one month, I read the papers in Vancouver. They were not much better than The Straits Times. They had one million people, English-speaking. But there was no sparkle in their pages.” So the papers in Vancouver was already slightly better than the Straits Times. Yet, no sparkle in their pages. Which means he probably thought the Straits Times was pretty bad. Well… it seems like it still is.
So if ST truly wanted to honour and remember Mr Lee, than, instead of giving him a meaningless award (rendered even more meaningless by changing the rules), ST should seriously try to evolve into the newspapers in Harvard, which was praised by Mr Lee, “The contrast in Harvard was dazzling. From the undergraduate paper, The Harvard Crimson, to the Boston Globe, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, every page crackled with novel ideas, smartly presented. Powerful minds had ordered those words. Ideas had been thought out and dressed in clean, clear prose.”
Mr Lee did not live to see ST reach those standards. Will we?