When PM Lee didn’t seek a correction in Straits Times

PM Lee Hsien Loong
PM Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong today completes 10 years in office, reports the Straits Times. So what was being reported in the press when he became prime minister on August 12, 2004? I couldn’t penetrate the walls guarding the archives of the Straits Times — but came across a story which said he not seek a correction when the newspaper published a report suggesting his father was a  better marksman than him.

I found the story in the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) of all places – the magazine that had its share of troubles  with Singapore’s leaders before finally closing down in 2009 after 63 years of publication.

The magazine reported the Straits Times offered to print a correction after its reporter was “bawled out” by an “officer” for reporting that Lee Hsien Loong missed the target every time on a visit to a firing range unlike his father, who was bang on target.

But, the magazine added, Lee Hsien Loong told the reporter there was no need for a correction.

The reporter who wrote the story was Peter Lim, who later became editor-in-chief of the Straits Times Group, now called Singapore Press Holdings.

Here’s the story which appeared in FEER when Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister in August 2004:

Peter Lim recognized a good story. It was the late 1980s, and Lim, then editor-in-chief of Singapore’s Straits Times Group, was accompanying Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to Brunei when he witnessed an episode that left him amazed. Invited to try out a new semi-automatic rifle, the prime minister sprayed bullets through the nearest target on a firing range; when it came to his son’s turn, Lim reported, former Brig.-Gen. Lee Hsien Loong missed with every round.

After publishing the story, however, Lim was bawled out by an officer who told him Lee Hsien Loong hadn’t been aiming at the targets. When Lim contacted Lee, he confirmed that he had been getting the feel of the rifle and wasn’t trying to hit anything in particular. Lim apologized and offered to publish a correction.

Much to Lim’s surprise, Lee, who had not long before left the armed forces and become a government minister, criticized the officer for his approach, and told Lim not to worry, that it wasn’t important.

The typical Singaporean official of the time would likely have demanded a retraction at the slightest hint of an error. To Lim, now a media consultant, Lee’s ability to accept that a mistake had been made, and his confidence that his military credentials would not be undermined by an inaccurate news report, set him apart from the previous generation.

The article went on to say, “As he takes over as prime minister, only the third since Singapore became independent 39 years ago, Lee Hsien Loong assumes the job with a great deal of such praise, from friends, colleagues and observers” – and quoted Patrick Daniel, now editor-in-chief of the English and Malay Newspapers Division of SPH.

It said:

Patrick Daniel, who worked for Lee as a director in the Trade and Industry Ministry, cites an early stand on the thorny issue of wage reform as characteristic of Lee. “His speech showed a complete mastery of the subject, and he had the guts to say: ‘You’ve got to reform’,” says Daniel…

Daniel, now a managing editor at Singapore Press Holdings, describes Lee as a task-oriented policy wonk. “If you get the task done, everything is fine,” he says. “If you don’t, you have to answer to him.”

Google also turned up a Sydney Morning Herald report headlined Singapore’s son finally takes over.

The report dated August 11, 2004, began:

February 10, 1952: to Singapore, a son was born. His birth date, the 15th day of the first moon in the year of the dragon, is the most auspicious in the Chinese calendar, so his parents named him Hsien Loong – “Illustrious Dragon”.

Tomorrow the Illustrious Dragon, Lee Hsien Loong, will take the prime minister’s oath of office, making him only the third leader in the Republic of Singapore’s 39-year history.

The report added “a poll in the government-controlled Straits Times newspaper recently showed that 83 per cent (of Singaporeans) thought he was the best man for the job”.