Conversations with the Giants of Asia
Renowned American columnist and author TOM PLATE shares with VIMALA SENEVIRATNE his views on the subjects of the “Giants of Asia” series
Photo by AHMAD ZURIN NOH
WHEN THOMAS GORDON PLATE, or Tom Plate as he prefers to be called, began working on his “Giants of Asia” series, he knew he would not please many people, including his readers. But that does not trouble him. “It comes with the territory,” says the bespectacled Plate as he leans back on the plush sofa at his hotel suite. “I let the chips fall where they may. It’s not a traditional political biography with a million words and a thousand footnotes and a dozen hidden axes to grind. The book is based on conversations between two people—me and, in this case, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.”
The author of Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad, the second volume in the “Giants of Asia” series, was in Kuala Lumpur recently to launch his book which offers a “riveting look into Malaysia’s most famous prime minister and his often controversial views and policies”. “He is someone you either love or hate, but you cannot ignore him,” says the 66-year-old well-known American journalist, university professor and internationally syndicated columnist whose column on Asia has been in leading newspapers and magazines worldwide (Washington Post, Time, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and London’s Daily Mail) for more than 15 years. Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad is based on four interview sessions with the former prime minister.
Plate’s interest in the Asia Pacific region began in the 1990s when he took up a job offer at the Los Angeles Times after spending decades as a journalist in New York. “Asia is the rising geopolitical centre of power and we have China leading the pack. There are individuals such as Lee Kuan Yew, the Minister Mentor of Singapore, and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who have created waves, taking their respective countries to greater heights,” says Plate who readily admits that he is not an expert or authority on issues related to politics or economics of the Asian countries, although he has been to these countries dozens of times. “The positive outcome is that I am more sensitive to Asia’s trends and personalities,” says the bubbly professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he lectures on Media Ethics and on Asian Media. He is also the director of the Pacific Perspectives Media Centre in Beverley Hills, a non-profit organisation that syndicates high-end op-eds.
The author of seven books, including Confessions of an American Media Man, Understanding Doomsday: A Guide to the Arms Race for Hawks, Doves and People and Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, Plate was inspired by Milovan Djilas who, in 1961, published Conversations with Stalin, a book based on his meetings with the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin during World War II. “I was toying with the idea of starting a series with the ‘Giants of Asia’ when [book publisher] Marshall Cavendish got in touch with me and suggested that I do a book on Lee Kuan Yew. That was a perfect opportunity to feature six of the movers and shakers in this region.”
Why six? It’s a manageable figure, he says, flashing a megawatt smile. Plate started out as a “scholarship boy” at Amherst, where he and future best-selling author Aaron Latham (Urban Cowboy) published Where the Boys Are, a guide to dating in the Ivy League. “It sold out. Latham invested in mutual funds while I bought a sports car,” says Plate, who is now working on the third book in the “Giants of Asia” series. It is on Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand.
“The interviews have been done and as soon as I get back home, I will have to write it out. The book is expected to be released in June.” The father of a 23-year-old college graduate daughter politely declines to name the remaining three “Giants of Asia”. What about women in the region who have created positive waves? Will they be featured in his “Giants of Asia” series? “Aung San Suu Kyi and Sonia Gandhi are two dynamic and powerful women,” is all he is willing to say. Plate, who has interviewed scores of people, including famous statesmen, counts Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Junichiro Koizumi among his favourite interview subjects. And what about the worst? “There are a handful of the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll keep it for the next series of books,” he says in jest.
His inspirational figures tend to be people in the literary field. “No politicians. Let’s see ... Graham Greene, Oscar Wilde, Ian Fleming and W. Somerset Maugham. I also enjoy works of composers such as Stravinsky, Mahler and Barber,” says Plate, who is currently reading Eric Ambler’s State of Siege which was first published in 1956. “It’s an interesting take on the postcolonial world.”
When he is not busy at the computer writing articles or working on the “Giants of Asia” series, he spends time at home with his wife of 31 years and their three pedigree cats. He also pursues his other passion—photography. “Journalism and photography go hand in hand. It’s all about creating or composing things. One deals with words, the other with images.”
When time permits, he races down the Pacific coast in his sporty BMW. “There’s nothing like feeling the wind in your face as you zip down the Pacific coast in your sporty Beemer,” he says, laughing.
Reproduced from the April-June 2011 issue of Quill magazine