The Power of Media: An Interview with Woon Tai Ho

Oct 2, 2012 | Columnist, Creativity, English

The Columnist (TC): You have been working with many Asian leaders. In your opinion, does culture influence the leadership style?

Woon Tai Ho (TH): I was in and out of Myanmar for 6 months and at that time it was just at the cusp of Aung San Suu Kyi being released. I think here, you have a clear example of soft power.  You can go around the world and ask anyone, everyone knows who she is. But if you ask anyone to name the head of state in Myanmar now, only a handful would.

Whether it’s soft power or hard power, the ability of someone to grab media attention is going to win at the end of the day. Given the situation that the world is in now – this particular person, in many cases, the underdog – is always going to be favoured over the established power. That cuts across all cultures.

We are familiar with Susan Boyle in Britain’s Got Talent.  Everyone thought she was a joke before she sang.  That particular performance became the most watched video in YouTube for a long time. It is a media world now. We live in a media community and if you can’t engage the media community, you are not going to win over the masses.

Another example – more people in the world know who Ai Weiwei is, than the leaders of China. Why?  Ai Weiwei has been able to harness and win over the media.

China may want to suppress Ai Weiwei and Myanmar suppressed Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the suppressed will have tremendous power if they know how to engage the media.  Without media, Aung San Suu Kyi would not be where she is; no one would know who she is. She was smart enough to court the media, even when she was in jail. She was kept alive by the media. There was an explosion of exposure when she was released, becoming the Mandela of the East.

Tiananmen Square. Photo credit: Lim Wenhui

TC: The means of communication have changed. We have new forms of media – for instance, social media – emerging today. How are Asian governments dealing with it? Have they been effective?

TH: No. They have not caught up with the pace of change. Honestly, all governments, especially governments in Asia, are afraid of media. At one time, they controlled media. China, Singapore, Malaysia had a stranglehold over the media. However social media has come on and in a very short period of time pressurized established media and changed the media landscape. When something is reported in social media and if established media doesn’t report it, they (established media) would look really bad. So established media would have to be as competitive as social media and the former will be the filtering ground. This is because social media has a lot of disgruntled voices; a lot of people believe social media with a pinch of salt. Still, established media looks to social media as its richest resource.

Asian leaders have not kept up on how to actually use media, especially social media.  Asian governments used to control what the media said.  With social media, they know the media landscape has changed and they need to be part of the media community.  It will take time for them to learn how to engage disgruntled “nobodies” they could ignore before.

In Singapore, immediately after the elections, there was this hot period where ministerial pay was a huge topic. Grace Fu posted a comment in her Facebook and was surprised by the wrath of the netizens. She had to apologise. It’s a minefield. It’d probably takes a generation for them to rewire themselves, because they have always done things in a certain way. There used to be a “pact” and some things were just never ever mentioned in the press.  No more.  Before any minister could talk or explain to a journalist, someone might have leaked the information out on Twitter or Facebook, a video could have been uploaded on YouTube.  In a way, social media is the game changer and media, as we know it, has been democratized.

Photo credit: Woon Tai Ho

TC: How can Asian governments improve their engagement with the public?

TH: Singapore has operated in a certain way for a long long time.  The government knows it needs to change the way it engages with the people, but the style and turn of phrase remain, however good the intentions are.  It’s going to take a generational change at the top to sync with a changed citizenry.

If you go to America and look at its social media, it is very different. You have people who are for the Republicans, people who are for the Democrats and people who are more objective. It is fairly mature. The reason why it is mature is because freedom of expression has always been with them. In most parts of Asia, freedom of expression is still being fought for or it’s only begun.  So anything that the establishment does; people are going to be suspicious.

TC: Do you think Asian governments are taking a step in the right direction; at least trying to improve?

TH: You can’t try. If a country is wired in a certain way, it has to ‘happen’. In some ways, the Arab Spring ‘happened’ and because it happened, it breaks a certain pillar of governance. It may be very difficult now, but the Middle East is not going to be the Middle East of before.

Another example is China. China wants to give people the impression that they are changing. So they made a huge show of prosecuting Bo Xilai and his wife.  But the layperson in China knows reality is backstage; a power struggle.  The moment something goes wrong, they become draconian again because it is their instinct. They don’t know any other way of dealing with it.

If you ask me whether governments are going about it the right way, I think they all have good intentions; they don’t want an Arab Spring at their doorstep.  However, because of the way the whole system is wired, it will take some time for a whole style of governance to change.

If you ask anyone on the streets today in Singapore, “Do you think the PAP welcomes the opposition?” Nobody would say yes. However, I think deep down, the Singapore government really welcomes the opposition. They don’t have to say it, but it’s their way of saying, “Now we have an opposition, it’s no longer a one party system anymore.” It’s their way of preserving the PAP. At least, they still have a majority. They were very unhappy that they lost Aljunied GRC, but in some ways that is how the cookie is crumbling.  It will take a generational change; younger leaders; to do things only they know how.

When we’re within the system, it is very hard to change from within. We need someone from another system to do it. Our style is different from their style. So it is going to take generational changes to have real response to how the population has changed.

Singapore skyline. Photo credit: Timo Balk

TC: What do you think about the way the government handled the rumour of Lee Kuan Yew’s alleged death circulating on social media? Would you have done anything differently?

TH: I think in traditional media, they would not have acknowledged it either. And this is a stroke of genius. They did not cede it nor deny it. But on the 9th of August, the appearance of Lee Kuan Yew himself said it all. You could hear the cheer the moment he appeared. In some ways, I think it was an accidental stroke of genius in the sense that nothing needed to be said. When he appeared, all rumours became what they were – rumours.

The smarter of people would know that in this time and age, you couldn’t deny something like that. You would incur more wrath if people knew that you lied to them. But you also couldn’t come up to deny his death, as you would be acknowledging the rumour. Therefore, they did the right thing by not doing anything.

TC: In Asia, which country has the most influential soft power/ culture?

TH: Ironically, it is Singapore. Singapore has always been known to be draconian in the western press, but Singapore is smart enough. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his son and the party, are visionary enough to let their results show for themselves. The success of Singapore is its soft power.

At one time, the party defended their way of governance; you need one party and not allow politics to delay what needed to be done, like the US. After a while, the soft power in Singapore just works and the real proof is in the pudding. You have more Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) here than any other countries. At the end of the day, the political system doesn’t matter to a company; the company just wants everything to work, so more and more they start to make Singapore their headquarters.

Hence in some ways, like Lee Kuan Yew said, there are no “isms” in Singapore. The only “ism” is pragmatism. We can be anything, as long as it works and it goes by the rules. As a result, even against his bad judgment, Lee Kuan Yew allowed for the 2 casinos and today, Marina Bay Sands makes more money than Vegas. It is even challenging Macau. Resorts World Sentosa is another successful casino. Singapore doesn’t care about the other “isms” and it has developed a very thick skin, such that you can call Singapore whatever you like, but you will still come to Singapore. Any company, like Kodak or Abercrombie and Fitch – as long as they aren’t criminals – they thrive here.

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Photo credit: Shi Heng Cheong

TC: Tony Fernandez is synonymous with the AirAsia brand, do you think that it benefits the company if the CEO is a personality and why?

TH: AirAsia is a phenomenon that spearheaded the budget airline industry. The leader put himself forward as a visionary. I think it works because of who he is and his track record. Initially the person who spearheads the company must be the face of the company, especially if he or she is a fantastic leader. Steve Jobs, for instance, was the face of Apple. Unfortunately, he passed away, but today Apple still thrives on his legacy and they will continue to thrive so long as Apple continues to listen to its customers, continues to be experimental and not complacent.

AirAsia has a visionary who people believe in. If you do not have a visionary, then you have to rely on your brand experience, but if you do have a visionary, use the leader to your advantage. However, at some point the leader, the face needs to step back and allow the product to become what it is meant to be.

The reverse case is Singapore Airlines. From day one, it knew Singapore or Singaporeans weren’t the market it was catering to, it was and is the world. For Banyan Tree, Mr Ho Kwon Ping was targeting the world from the day he launched the brand. If someone like Barbara Streisand wants to go to a resort, Banyan Tree needed to be one of say five short-listed.  That’s how high the benchmark was for these companies.

Today, if you ask someone who is the brain behind Banyan Tree or Singapore Airlines, I doubt if anyone knows. These are two extremely successful products, they didn’t rely on the face of a visionary to launch or keep them successful. If you do have a visionary and charismatic face to be put on the brand, go ahead and use it but after a certain point, you have to step back; the product needs to perform.

TC: Being a media engagement coach yourself, what is the biggest challenge in working with Asian leaders?

TH: The biggest challenge for Asian leaders is that some of them do not believe they need to be coached to front the media. For instance, during an interview with BBC, Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand was asked, “Are you a dictator?” He replied, “I am not a dictator”. It became the headline of every single media.

If I were the reader of any magazine like the Wall Street Journal, the only word that screams at me is the word “dictator”. Obviously, he has not been trained, because if he were, he would have avoided the word “dictator” in his answer.  His answer could simply be, “I have enough supporters who know I can lead Thailand.”  He is unlike someone like Obama, who is very savvy and well trained in media.

TC: What is your view of the evolution of China’s soft power?

TH: There is a leadership change coming. The reason why people are going to China is because China’s growth rate has been in the double digits. It is now shrinking to single digit growth but it is still ahead of everyone.

China’s soft power is actually its growth.  Everyone is going into into China for its huge base, its people potentially bigger than the US in terms of spending powder. They are going in cautiously because anything can happen. In other words, you have to be on the right side of right. If you are on the wrong side of right, you can still be jailed unless the situation changes. However, it is unlikely to change anytime soon; it is still a communist country, even though economically, it is more capitalist than the West and Louis Vuitton is still the brand to carry.  In terms of its political landscape, China is still China. When you go in and invest, go with your eyes open.

This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.