A VIEW has been advanced by writers like Fareed Zakaria at TIME magazine and Roger Cohen in The New York Times that WikiLeaks has at least revealed the expertise of American diplomats.
Certainly, it is true that the cables indicate United States diplomats consulting a range of contacts from government leaders to harassed dissidents as they search to interpret events in the countries where they are based.
However, it is not what WikiLeaks says about US diplomacy that most interests us, but what it uncovers about the strangely undiplomatic and often wrong-headed views of world leaders and their advisers.
Most startling of all is that the wrong-headedness often comes from unexpected sources, like Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, for instance.
After all, Lee’s reputation stands with the likes of Britain’s William Pitt the Younger and Germany’s Otto von Bismarck – or at least it would do if, instead of a little red dot, he had governed a real country.
Still, he is widely rated as a visionary leader with a bold agenda that he delivered on, while taking no prisoners yet holding regular parliamentary elections.
Having interviewed him three times, I can vouch for the fact that he ticks off all of these boxes.
And yet, and yet, as the recent pronouncements in WikiLeaks confirm, he and his top advisers have said some pretty daft things.
Well, even Homer nods, I suppose.
But consider the 2007 cable in which Lee states that ASEAN should not have admitted Cambodia, along with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, because its “political system is too personalised around Prime Minister Hun Sen”.
Up to a point, he is right, of course. But talk about the pot calling the kettle black. The political system in Singapore has been personalised around the Lee family since independence half a century ago.
Having been PM for 31 years himself, Lee’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, has now been in the job for the past six years.
His daughter-in-law, Ho Ching, is the CEO of Temasek Holdings, the government’s investment arm.
His other son, Lee Hsien Yang, is both the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and of one of the nation’s largest companies, Fraser and Neave.
Naturally, all these people got their posts on merit.
But Lee’s leaked comment suggests he thinks the opposite about Cambodia, even though Hun Sen has not hit 31 years in office yet and his son, Hun Manet, is hardly without merit, being a West Point Academy graduate with a PhD in economics from the UK.
Lee’s hypocrisy is matched by his foreign ministry’s then top civil servant, Peter Ho, who, in another cable, said former Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, is disliked “because he got where he is through family ties”.
Oh dear, that would never happen in Singapore.
As a matter of fact, it did not happen in Malaysia either. Khairy, an Oxford graduate, is a brilliant politician, orator and thinker. He got where he is on merit.
Yes, I’m biased, having known Khairy for 15 years. But I recall watching him at a debate in Hanoi where the other speakers were Singapore’s Simon Tay, Thailand’s Abhisit Vejjajiva and Brunei’s Timothy Ong.
By a country mile, Khairy was the most cogent, passionate and persuasive speaker of them all.
He was reminiscent of a young Harry Lee – in other words, the kind of person the ruling People’s Action Party in Singapore is desperately seeking but cannot seem to find.
Indeed, those patronising and misguided comments in the leaked cables make me fear that perhaps I understated matters when I wrote in a recent column about Singapore’s dearth of future political talent as a general election looms.
For sadly, the current thinking there reflects a rather sclerotic leadership, which is not only imbued with typical Singaporean sanctimony, but also strangely out of touch with current realities in the region.