Excerpts of an interview by playwright Bruce Smith with American journalist and author Tom Plate, for whom Asia has become a second home.
You had extraordinary access to major Asian leaders, including Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, for the Giants of Asia book series. In one or two sentences on each, sum up your impressions of these leaders.
Lee Kuan Yew – Hard as a diamond, smart as a whip, as sentimental as coal (except for his wife). Very easy to interview.
Ban Ki-moon – A tremendous human being, in an impossible job; but history will be kind to him. Very hard to interview.
Mahathir Mohamad – Crazy like a fox…makes Machiavelli seem naïve…the ultimate juggler. His policies, though oft-criticised, helped keep the country together, prosperous and non-violent for more than two decades…a deep worrier about the future of Islam…fun to interview.
Thaksin Shinawatra – A brilliant financial and economic mind…sharper than even the Wolf of Wall Street, even more controversial. On the whole was the right man for Thailand, which now looks a mess…they would have been better off keeping him and accepting bad with good (like every other country). A terrific interview…hugely energetic.
At the same time, as a journalist who held high-level positions at the LA Times, Time Magazine and more, you interviewed many senior US officials, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. What anecdotes or impressions about these officials can you share?
Christopher – Wise and deep but a huge flop with the mass media; became exasperated with Bill Clinton and had to leave after the first term; deeply knowledgeable about Asia and really tried to help me when I launched the column in the LA Times.
Bill Clinton – Too clever by half; as charming as Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, but very smart with an astonishing recall memory. Wish he had had a third term to (a) establish the new high bar for US presidents and (b) keep the dumb Texan out of the White House. As a human being, though, I prefer Ban Ki-moon, by far.
In the past 20 years, you’ve travelled to Asia 60 or so times. Tell us your impressions of some of the cities and countries you’ve been to – not from a political perspective but as an ordinary citizen-visitor?
HONG KONG – New York in a Chinese fortune cookie – never predictable.
SEOUL – A metropolis on steroids…everyone working to make money.
HO CHI MINH CITY – Like Seoul but more like Vegas than Silicon Valley. Almost everything is for sale and often the price is excellent, especially high fashion.
MELBOURNE – A truly civilised and walkable city.
TOKYO – Very sexy and unappreciated…culture as deep as history … high-end fashion ladies out of some catalogue…politicians a joke…food beyond great.
BEIJING – This is where it is right now…the Tokyo of the eighties. Too governmental though. SHANGHAI is more fun.
SINGAPORE – Perhaps not to everyone’s taste but to mine…in all respects the smartest city of them all, with the smartest people. Dining not better anywhere.
KUALA LUMPUR – Unappreciated…a great zoo and bird park…nice clubs.
BANGKOK – A sad doomed city…cannot talk about it with what is going on now.
JAKARTA – Boom! Boom! Boom! Watch Indonesia carefully…fourth largest population, No 1 in number of Muslims…big election this year…on my personal Watch List.