September 29, 2009
From our Correspondent
Mr William Safire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and former columnist of New York Times, died at the age of 79 of pancreatic cancer.
Safire spent more than 30 years writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. In his “On Language” column in The New York Times Magazine and more than a dozen books, Safire traced the origins of words and everyday phrases such as “straw man,” “under the bus” and “the proof is in the pudding.”
New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a statement: “For decades, Bill’s columns on The Times’s Op-Ed Page and in our Sunday Magazine delighted our readers with his insightful political commentary, his thoughtful analysis of our national discourse and, of course, his wonderful sermons on the use and abuse of language. Bill will be greatly missed.”
Safire remained one of the few critics of MM Lee who managed to get away for lampooning him without being sued. He once described Lee as a “tinpot dictator”.
In October and November 1996, he wrote two commentaries criticising the Nixon Centre for Peace and Freedom, a Washington think-tank, for conferring on Mr Lee, then Senior Minister, the Architect of the New Century award.
Mr Safire finally met and interviewed Mr Lee at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 1999. The long interview resulted in two columns, headlined ‘The Dictator Speaks’ and ‘Danger: Chinese Tinderbox’.
Three years earlier, also at Davos, Mr Safire raised the issue of nepotism in Singapore’s leadership. Though then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong threatened to take him to court if the speech was uttered in Singapore, no action was taken against him.
In August 2002, Mr Safire lambasted the Bloomberg News Service for bowing to pressure and ‘kowtowing’ to Singapore’s leaders after the news agency apologised unreservedly for an article that insinuated that Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ms Ho Ching, clinched the top job at Temasek Holdings because of nepotism, rather than on merit.
In his column, he heaped scorn on the apology and the US$340,000 (S$482,000) payout in damages: ‘In kowtowing to the Lee family, the Bloomberg News Service… has just demeaned itself and undermined the cause of a free online press.’
With the demise of Safire, MM Lee will have one less detractor in the world who dares to criticize him fearlessly with few repercussions.