NYT Apologizes for Singapore Truth

Lee_Kuan_YewThe following Correction ran in the March 24 NYT under the headline “Apology.”

In 1994, Philip Bowring, a contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s op-ed page, agreed as part of an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father Lee Kuan Yew. In a February 15, 2010, article, Mr. Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit. We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article.

Granting that a promise is a promise and that journalists sometimes have to make hard choices in gaining access to autocrats, this is a truly bizarre thing for which to apologize.   Is there any question whatsoever that Singapore, despite having had elections for decades, is authoritarian by Western standards?  Or that nepotism and other forms of personal loyalty plays a stronger role in Singapore than in true representative democracies?  Or that Lee Kuan Yew played and continues to play an outsized role in Singapore and People’s Action Party politics?

I get apologizing for breaking a pledge, even if it’s 16 years old and shouldn’t have been given in the first place.  But issuing a correction for telling the truth?

UPDATE: A friend employed by a major media company emails a very plausible explanation:

The reason the New York Times issued that correction is that if you print something about the Lee family, they will sue you in Singapore courts, which they control, and then they will win, and then they will seize any assets you happen to have in Singapore.  For the New York Times, this is an issue.

If you have ever wondered about the strange kid-gloves treatment the rather noxious family gets in the international media, that’s why.
It makes sense, actually.  And as Steven Taylor notes in the comments below and VJ Morton (Victor Morton) speculates via Twitter, it’s quite possible that NYT wrote the correction in the way they did precisely to elicit the reaction they did from readers paying attention.  That is, they simultaneously met their obligation to the Singapore autocrats and thumbed their noses at them.

via Matt Yglesias

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The funny thing is that the apology actually gives the paper the chance to even further break the promise, insofar as it apologized for the action in a way that draws attention to the potential for nepotism in Singapore. Indeed, one wonders if the apology isn’t backhanded on purpose. In other words, the correction for telling the truth appears to have the effect of purposefully reinforcing the truth while maintaining the fig leaf of keeping the original promise.

  2. Franklin says:

    I came here to say what Mr. Taylor just did. The ‘correction’ seems to intentionally imply the truth while maintaining the appearance of keeping the pledge. That would be enough to fool many non-native English speakers.

  3. mattt says:

    What’s the equivalent of “ditto,” when you come in third?

    My guess is the NYT had to issue this “correction” to maintain access, and they chose to do so in a manner that shines more light on the situation. They didn’t try to hide their deal, even though they must have known they’d come in for criticism from MSM-bashers for making the deal in the first place – and probably irritate the autocrats further. Good for them.

  4. mattt says:

    I think I commented simultaneously with the update, but….yes.

  5. Mr. Joyner:

    Thanks for the shoutout.

    If 140 characters allowed, I’d have specified the same point someone else did above … that the correction is written in a way that no Western speaker of English could miss the point, while ethnic-Chinese despots unused to the culture of a free press can see only the kowtow and not the smirk.

  6. the Rudder says:

    Funny how the “correction” seem to put the truth more blatantly than it did in the original article, it’s induction at its best. Chinese hold their Confucian values too dearly that the PAP is able to take advantage of it, an inherent flaw in the ideology. My opinions on the issue.