William Safire:
Calling it quits
Columnist who has attacked Lee Kuan Yew for years stops writing for NY Times after three decades. Seah Chiang Nee.
Nov 17, 2004

During the 90s, William Safire has called Mr. Lee Kuan Yew a dictator like no others. "Ironically, Lee may have created the ideal communist state with the help of multinational corporations," he wrote in 1992.

He insisted that Lee's 'neo-authoritarianism' was was being studied in China and 'this form of tyranny may become the next threat to democracy.'

During and after Kuan Yew's retirement, the Pulitzer Price winner had continued to criticise the ruling People's Action Party policies on politics, the opposition, judiciary and the press.

He didn't like its laws on hanging, caning, chewing gum, and in particular, its use of the courts against opposition leaders and the foreign press that "Lee disliked."

A New York Times spokesman announced the Op-Ed page writer for more than three decades will end his regular column in early 2005.

The rightwing Safire joined the paper in 1973 after working as a speechwriter for President Nixon. Since then he has put out 5,000 columns and 3 million words. In 1978 he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary.

However, Safire, 74, will continue to write his Sunday column, "On Language", which has appeared in The New York Times Magazine since 1979 and has led to the publication of 15 books on the English language.

But Singaporeans know him for his crusade against Lee Kuan Yew, whom he had interviewed for the Times. Excerpts of one heated exchange in February 1999:-

Safire: Well, I've seen where a publication suggested that compliant judges were used corruptly to bankrupt your opponent. Right?
LKY: I took them to court and they paid damages for that.

Safire: That was because of your corrupt judges.
LKY: Now, just a moment. The World Economic Forum and it's rival organization, IMD, listed us in their competitiveness report, had confidence in our judicial system; compared to all of the other countries, it's right on top.

Safire: That's on economic ...
LKY: No, no, no, no. You don't have judges who are honest and competent in economics and dishonest and corrupt in libel cases.

Safire: Why not?
LKY: Because that's not the way we run our system. That's not the way we appoint judges. A judge has been appointed ... we have inherited the British system. Once appointed, he cannot be removed. His salaries are guaranteed under the constitution. All his perquisites cannot been diminished.

Safire: So the result of these pristine, honest, uncorrupt judges is that all your political opposition is driven into exile, or bankrupted, or, in other words ...
LKY: Just a moment. How are they driven into exile? We do not want them in exile.

When Singapore was criticised, (the then) Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said since Safire hadn't kept himself up-to-date with events here he invited him to come for a visit - and a public debate.

That would give the American direct access to convince the people of Singapore that he was right and the government was wrong. Safire declined.

His fame was at home, built in an era of strong rightwing fervour against communism and the Cold War.

Since 9/11 and the war against terrorism, Safire's reputation has taken a knock, especially his support of Bush's invasion of Iraq.

He had written in strong support with the US administration that there was a link between Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein - an allegation that Bush himself later admitted was based on wrong intelligence.

One columnist, Barry Lando, in Salon.com, asked how this "minister of misinformation" (Safire) could get away with glaring errors that shaped world affairs. He had insisted that there was a smoking gun when there was none.

By Seah Chiang Nee