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Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005

How not to manage U.S.-Singapore ties


LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps the last thing that the well-run city-state of Singapore needs is for some outside columnist to defend it. Among the many natural-born rhetorical defenses available on this amazing island is the redoubtable Lee Kuan Yew. Even at 82, the founding prime minister of modern Singapore is not someone you mess with.

Then there is Kishore Mahbubani, the country's former U.N. ambassador who's now dean of the public policy school at the National University of Singapore. Colleagues at the U.N. used to routinely describe him as "the best and the brightest." George Yeo, foreign minister, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, is no slouch, either. (His many admirers claim that the only chink in his armor is his golf game.)

And the list of formidable Lion City naysayer-tamers goes on and on. So, if this columnist were smart, he'd let Singapore deal with the ungracious and unnecessary remarks about the country's political system recently offered by outgoing U.S. ambassador Frank Lavin.

But I cannot help myself. Like a growing number of Americans, I am tired of Bush officials telling the world how to run its business when we cannot finish a war properly, respond to a hurricane competently, or offer adequate public education to enough of our children.

But before I get this rant really going, don't get the wrong idea. Lavin is anything but a bad guy. Educated at Georgetown and a foreign-service veteran, he came to the job as an investment banker from Hong Kong. (Right, he has money and he's a Republican.) But -- alas -- like many others in the U.S. government these days, he thinks he knows what ails everyone else and apparently isn't shy about telling people what to do and think.

Singapore's political system has produced one of the highest living standards in the world, but Lavin proclaims that he cannot imagine how Singapore can possibly hope to cope with the challenges of the 21st century. Its leaders, he opined, "will pay the price for not allowing full participation of its citizens."

Though representing a country whose political system permitted a minority-vote president to take over the White House five years ago and that disallowed blacks from voting for nearly half a century, Lavin called on successful Singapore to adopt an American-style system that's free-swinging, outspoken and wide open.

"The lack of open and vigorous debates might reduce a government's popularity if it doesn't let ideas or views be properly aired," he declaimed.

Not so fast: Political debates aren't necessarily more "vigorous" just because they are more "open." Indeed, unless those debates are as intellectually rigorous in government chambers, as well as in the airy arenas of opinion, public policy will be no better for all the pointless hot air. And look at America these days: The more "ideas and views are properly aired," the more, it seems, the president's popularity sinks and opposition to the Iraq war deepens.

Sure, Singapore, with some 4 million-plus population, could lighten up and move itself in the direction of an open Oxford debating society. It's a coherent enough place now to turn up the volume. In fact, it has already done a bit of that and is sure to do more. And eventually and inevitably, information-technology globalization will make its public debates as puffy and blog-bleary as our own. Wonderful.

Though anything but vile, Lavin's declamations, uttered as a parting shot, are inherently disrespectful of Singapore's accomplishments. In fairness, Lavin did emphasize Singapore's "very high quality leadership," which is certainly a true statement, especially in comparison to the quality of much Western leadership.

But to Asian ears -- even those outside of Singapore who rankle over the island's superiority complex -- the U.S. rebuke seemed an all too familiar re-run of "My Way or the Highway." This is the American un-wisdom that insists, mullah-like, there's but one true path to political heaven, we the U.S. know what it is, and you -- since you disagree with us -- obviously don't.

I close with this excerpt of a review of a book by the late Dale Carnegie: "Success, Carnegie believed, is due 15 percent to professional knowledge and 85 percent to the ability . . . to arouse enthusiasm among people [by] dealing with them so that they feel important and appreciated . . . handling people without making them feel manipulated.

"You can make someone want to do what you want them to by seeing the situation from the other person's point of view . . . You learn how to . . . win people over to your way of thinking, and change people without causing offense or arousing resentment. For instance, "let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers," and "talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person'."

The book was famously titled "How to Win Friends and Influence People," published in the 1930s but still in print. Send a copy to your friends in the Bush administration.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Copyright Tom Plate, 2005.


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