- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
On Tuesday, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long visited the United States and met with President Obama. That night, in a speech to U.S. businessmen, Lee told a few jokes about China.
He drew laughs – and some groans – with his quips, including one about China’s environmental problems.
"Beijing residents joke that to get a free smoke all they have to do is open their windows!" Lee said.
He then alluded to thousands of pig carcasses recently fished from Chinese rivers.
"(In) Shanghai, if you want some pork soup, you just turn on the tap," he said.
His audience appeared doubtful if that was good taste, until he added, "That’s their joke, not mine!"
It is noteworthy that a leader would make what look to be on-the-record jokes about another country; and pretty decent ones too. But in my mind, what’s funnier — not in the haha sort of way, but more in that sigh-provoking way — is that foreign and Singaporean journalists cannot write freely about Lee Hsien Loong without the fear of getting sued. I’ve blogged about this before — on how Singapore has sued major media companies in its own courts and won, and why these media companies have decided to pay up — but think it bears repeating.
Knowing that an article that focuses on Singapore’s leaders — Lee or his father, Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister from 1959 to 1990 and is still very influential — faces the (however miniscule) possibility of a lawsuit makes me wonder what effect that has on the article. In the few times when I’ve written articles that touch upon Lee, it’s definitely crossed my mind. I’d be surprised if it didn’t give other journalists pause as well.