Thomas Gordon Plate is an American journalist, university professor and internationally syndicated columnist. Over the last 18 years his column on Asia has regularly appeared in leading newspapers across the globe. In recent years, he has released the first four books of the Giants of Asia series, of which the latest is Conversations with Ban Ki-moon: The View from the Top. All the four books have been translated and published in Viet Nam. He spoke to Inner Sanctum about the series.
Inner Sanctum: What was the thinking behind the Giants of Asia series?
In the fall of 2008, visionary editors at Marshall Cavendish and its publisher contacted me with an idea for a book on Lee Kuan Yew, the modern country's founding prime minister. The idea was to try to get inside the mind of this exceptional Asian leader through a series of semi-relaxed, slightly intimate conversations.
I accepted their idea: I was the only newspaper-based columnist in the US who focused on Asia exclusively, and MC has published my media autobiography, Confessions of an American Media Man, which, by the way, was translated and published in Viet Nam, too.
After further discussions, we expanded the idea into a series, especially after Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew remained on Asian bestseller lists for 40 consecutive weeks (the first nine weeks as No 1).
My idea was that the series, taken together, would help people understand why Asia has risen rapidly, and also would provide future historians with primary source material which, in the absence of the series, simply would not exist.
Inner Sanctum: What's next in the series after Conversations with Ban Ki-moon?
I have taken a break from the series to complete a two-book series on my newspaper columns that I began writing two decades ago. My ambition is to do books on a leader each from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, and - last but certainly not least - of Viet Nam. As far as I am concerned the series will go beyond the current quartet.
Inner Sanctum: Among the giants that you interviewed, who did you find the most difficult to get access to?
None of the four giants resisted. Once Lee Kuan Yew accepted, and word got around that he had, doors opened. Mahathir - always competing with his Singapore counterpart - readily agreed. Thaksin, in exile in Dubai, reached out through his sister and a former Cabinet minister to me in Los Angeles as to whether it made sense to do such a book. Ban Ki-moon, the former South Korean foreign minister, agreed because he had known my work for years and trusted me to some extent. And his wife Soon-taek recommended to him that he do it!
For obvious and understandable reasons, UN Secretary General Ban was the most difficult to talk to. Although he was almost saintly in his patience with me and in his desire to see that a good book would be produced, as with the book with Lee, whom he greatly admired, his natural carefulness and the sensitivity of his position as UNSG made candor difficult to elicit.
I wound up returning to New York over and over again for additional time. He never said "No" to me, despite the heavy burden of his schedule, which included a crushing amount of travel. Finally, at our very last two-hour session (he suspected it was the final one but was unsure), he looked at me and said, "Do, you have enough now?" I laughed and said: "Yes, the ordeal is over." Then he laughed.
Inner Sanctum: What are some of the most memorable incidents you encountered when doing this series?
One was during the middle of the second session with Lee, who was then 86 and not in good health. One could see that the end-game deterioration was beginning. I had interviewed him five times before and had been struck by how vigorous he was physically, not to mention intellectually. Now I began to see him as old and in pain and it was moving. I always liked him, and still do.
Mahathir of Malaysia was an amazingly interesting, even fun, character, but he had the anti-semitic cloud over his head - which I concluded was not his true nature - and when he met my wife Andrea in his Kuala Lumpur office after one two-hour session, and realised my wife was Jewish, he sort of became very humble and quiet - it was quite odd!
As for Thaksin - turns out he loved to shop and loved the huge shopping malls of Dubai, and we would walk through them together, and sometimes he would run into a tourist visiting from his home country of Thailand, and he would stop, and hug them, and talk to them - sincerely moved, and missing his country. Of course I didn't know what they were talking about in Thai! But it helped me realise that while many hated him, many loved and admired him for his vision. It was always moving.
With UN Secretary General Ban, there were many moments: He is a very fine human being... extremely considerate, of a high order. Maybe of all four giants he might be the best person, whatever that may mean! His wife is like a saint. When he talked about his wife and how his career ambition had short-changed her of a lot of togetherness, his eyes became misty. But they weren't misty when he talked about the UN Security Council and all its structural problems. He is a doer and likes to see things done! I wish he had an organisation behind him that was less divided so painfully.
Inner Sanctum: So who would be your Vietnamese candidate for the series?
I wanted to do General [Vo Nguyen] Giap but of course he aged faster than I could get to him. He would have been perfect - an historic figure. Having missed him, I need to find someone from a younger generation that illustrates the promise of your country's future, which should be brilliant. But I have not found that person. — VNS