By Nilantha Ilangamuwa
He is a well-known man in Hong Kong. Nury Vittachi is a journalist and author based in Hong Kong. Known as “Mister Jam", among his readers try is one of the most widely published Asian writers.
He has written more than 30 books, ranging from non-fiction works to novels to stories for children. His newspaper columns are syndicated daily throughout Asia. An award-winning journalist, he has had regular slots on the BBC, CNN, as well as having held senior editorial positions at the Far Eastern Economic Review and the South China Morning Post.
In this interview, I have communicated with Nury on several issues such as the situation in Hong Kong and his memories about late-Tarzie Vittachi.
Following are the excerpts of the interview;
Question: Nury, when was the last time you were in Sri Lanka?
Answer: I miss Sri Lanka so much! I haven’t been for at least seven or eight years. But I keep in touch with friends and family there, so am always interested in the lively happenings of that wonderful community (and perhaps less wonderful politicians!).
Q: How is life in Hong Kong, what do you do there?
A: Life in Hong Kong is good. The economy is strong, the government is efficient, and the press is free. The Western media constantly prints articles about the loss of press freedom here, but they are not true. I write books and articles all the time, and I am regularly rude to the leader of Hong Kong and the leader of China. I have had no trouble getting my columns and books in print.
Q: Hong Kong is a special administrative region under the People Republic of China since 1997. What are differences you see between Mainland China and Hong Kong SAR?
A: They are both developing in interesting ways – both are becoming freer in some ways. In Hong Kong, you can say anything you like and print books saying anything. In China, you are more aware of certain limits, but people are smart – they talk about other things and often get around restrictions using clever language. The Chinese government has pulled 850 million people out of poverty since the 1980s – this is an extraordinary achievement that it does not get enough credit for. Both governments are fundamentally good.
Q: What made you base yourself in Hong Kong?
A: I came here on honeymoon in 1987. My wife and I loved it, and so extended our honeymoon. It has lasted 32 years so far – must be one of the longest honeymoons on record.
Q: What can Sri Lanka learn from Hong Kong?
A: That’s a tricky question because Hong Kong thrived as a very benign dictatorship. (Singapore thrived as a semi-benign dictatorship.) Yet no one would recommend that any community moves away from democracy towards dictatorship – that would be insane.
But somewhere there is a sweet spot. A community needs a good, strong, wise leader, who is powerful enough to stamp out corruption—and yet gentle enough to be guided by the hopes and fears of the common people. The Judeo-Christian idea of the Servant Leader is helpful here.
I hope Sri Lanka’s current or next generation will produce people like this.
Q: One of you notable works is The Feng Shui Detective. What motivated you to write this book and what are the notable responses?
A: This book series was popular around the world, I am happy to say. It is a set of crime stories, but it is also a light hearted plea for people to understand each other. One of the main characters is a young female vegetarian. The other is an old Asian man who likes to eat things alive if possible! They discover that they can solve crimes only if they work together.
Q: Newspaper reports say that pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong are in danger. What is your take?
A: The Hong Kong police are actually very good. The things you see on the Internet in which they bash up protestors – these are segments from long running fights which have been edited to make it look like the police are attacking. The truth is that they are defending. But sometimes they are pushed to the limit and lose their cool. So I would say that some protestors have been violent and some police have been violent. But in the main, both have behaved quite well.
Q: Let us talk about Tarzie Vittachi, you late-father and one of the best writers Ceylon ever produced. What was your earliest memory with his as a kid?
A: He was a big personality, often cheeky and rude to people, and he loved to stir things up. For example, he would say things in favor of China when people were very scared of China. But I can’t honestly say he was a great father. He would disappear from the house for weeks or months on end. As a child, I saw him a strange uncle who would suddenly appear and fill the house with noise and people—and then vanish again! But he had a good heart.
Q: Many people in the country and elsewhere say that the quality of the newspapers and other media has dropped. Do you agree?
A: I can’t comment on Sri Lankan newspapers, but the international press has really fallen in quality. For example, there was a march in Hong Kong which the organizers claimed involved 2 million people. We all knew that the organizers invented these numbers and that they would not survive even ten minutes of fact-checking. If 2 million people out of a population of 7.4 million stopped work, the whole place would grind to a halt. But none of the members of the international media did the necessary fact-checking –- they just printed the number that was obviously invented. Now, that “lie” has become “truth” – printed in a thousand newspapers around the world.
Q: What is the best lesson you have learnt from your father?
A: If people are sending you hate-mail or angry comments, you are probably doing a good job! Shrug them off and carry on.
Q: Your father is a Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning journalist and he was the youngest editor of the oldest newspaper in Asia, The Ceylon Observer, which was founded in 1834. But, why don’t we have any memoir or adequate literature about him?
A: That’s a good point. A few people have started to write memoirs or biographies about him, but it seems like none have been finished. I know my mother was very much against having this sort of book written – she felt that hagiographies had no purpose, but warts-and-all biographies dug up too many negative things. But perhaps one day such a book should be written. My sister was close to him, and writes very well. Perhaps she could do it!
Q: Later, he joined the UN system. How do you observe his duties in UNICEF?
A: He fitted in surprisingly well. Because of his big mouth, we thought he would struggle to fit into the strait-jacket of that type of formal organization. But he behaved himself for the most part, reserving his outspoken comments for the right times and the right places.
Q: Do you think journalists nowadays are less-responsible?
A: Unfortunately, yes. In the old days, there was money pouring into journalism from advertisers, so we could take time to do good stories. Now the budgets are cut, reporters are few and horribly overworked, and we cut corners. It’s a shame.
Q: Why Sri Lanka is still poor; what went wrong here?
A: This frustrates me so much. I know that the community is extremely smart, well-read, highly literate, and hard-working—but somehow it doesn’t come together to form a thriving community that develops quickly.
We need good leaders, as I mentioned above. For most of human civilization, humanity has been dominated by strong rulers with a measure of democracy. So for example the Greeks are said to have invented democracy, but they really pushed a model that featured rule by a wise elite, but with ways of taking into account the views of the ordinary people.
Only relatively recently have we had the model of Western liberal democracy, which takes the Greek model and moves it almost to a level of referendums, in which every person has an equal vote. Now our communities are over-politicized, which seems to be not a good thing.
I hope Sri Lanka will one day get leaders who are strong enough and honest enough and smart enough to destroy corruption and make the economy work, while still being open and inclusive enough to care for the needs of the poor and needy. That’s all that’s needed.
Q: Give us your advice to the writers and journalists?
A: It seems bleak, but the statistics are on our side. Asia makes up 60.5 per cent of the world’s population, yet almost none of the internationally successful books, newspapers, movies, games and other cultural items are from Asia. It is an anomaly. And anomalies eventually fix themselves. So Asian writers will have to rise and take their places in the global cultural map.
Q: Late Tarzie Vittachi used to conduct lectures on how to read the newspapers. If I may ask you the same question, “How to read the newspaper?”
A: How to read the newspaper? Have a pinch of salt at your side. Have a little healthy skepticism in your eyes. And don't forget to read the lines and then read between the lines!
Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian. This interview was originally published in Daily Financial Times.