The Reporter Who Fought Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir

Stephen J. Duthie, a prize-winning former Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent who played a significant role in one of the most tumultuous periods in Southeast Asian journalism, has died in the United States after a short illness. He was 66 years old.

Then a national affairs reporter for the Detroit News, Duthie became bored with reporting in the US and joined what was then the Asian Wall Street Journal in 1984 as the newspaper’s Singapore correspondent. It was a time when the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was growing increasingly authoritarian and irritated by independent western-style reporting. At the same time, the then (and future) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was cracking down on the press in Malaysia.

The now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek as well as the Asian Wall Street Journal took the brunt of the wrath of both strongmen, with newspapers and magazines being temporarily banned and roadblocks put in their way.

Duthie almost immediately ran afoul of Lee Kuan Yew with a story casting doubt on the success of Singapore’s proposed NASDAQ-style second board, causing the prime minister to push a law through the country’s parliament giving him the authority to cut the Journal’s Singapore circulation from approximately 10,000 to 100 copies a day.

Nonetheless, Duthie continued to cover the country’s changing political scene and events that led to the mid-1980s recession despite the prime minister’s ire. After banning the paper, Lee’s office called up the paper’s circulation department and demanded that copies continue to be sent to his office.

There followed a long series of protests by the government to almost every story that appeared in the Journal. In 1986, Duthie moved to Kuala Lumpur after Mahathir expelled the paper’s two correspondents there, giving them 72 hours to get out. Correspondents in both countries worked under heavy pressure, with the governments in both objecting to the paper’s coverage. In 1988, Singapore refused to extend the Journal correspondent’s visa and the bureau remained closed until mid-1992.

In Malaysia Mahathir beat back pressure from upstart opponents within the United Malays National Organization, eventually firing the chief justice of the country’s highest court, in part out of irritation with the court’s earlier ruling that he had expelled the Journal’s two reporters without legal standing after their critical reporting on corruption and political repression.

Duthie was the lead reporter on Singapore’s Pan-Electric scandal, which closed the stock exchange for several days, and reported on Malaysian corporate wheeling and dealing including parceling out privatization deals to UMNO cronies of Mahathir and his business guru Daim Zainuddin.

“I do know that copies were limited (during that period),” said Robert Keatley, the Hong Kong-based editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal in an email. “Someone from Hong Kong tried to buy a copy once at a major Singapore hotel, only to be told it was sold out because "it is a very important newspaper and we are only allowed two copies."

It was “meddled with in Malaysia in my day,” said Keatley, who was posted back to the US paper in 1984.. “It took a week for it to get from the airport to subscribers and newsstands for a time. Two cabinet officers told me that was on the order of Mahathir, but he denied it to me when I asked him. Claimed he knew nothing about it. We were running articles claiming there was tie between Malay politics and money, which obviously could not have been true.”

Duthie left the Journal in 1995 to return to the United States, becoming the managing director of Phileo Capital (US), a subsidiary of Malaysia’s Phileo Allied, which was then closely affiliated with then-Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim until Anwar fell out with Mahathir and ultimately was imprisoned on charges regarded by human rights organizations across the world as fabricated.

“It doesn’t matter how long you will be here but how well you have lived this life,” said Anwar, now the country’s presumptive premier-in- waiting, in a fax. “Steve’s work as a correspondent during my time as the Finance Minister was nothing less than a memorable encounter. My condolences to his loved ones. May time heal the pain through remembrance of his legacy.”

Duthie recruited senior reporters and the current editor of The Edge, Malaysia’s leading business and financial newspaper, which was once owned by Phileo. He also led Phileo Group in creating The African Edge, a Johannesburg-based monthly magazine.

He later moved to corporate communications, first with Whirlpool Corporation and later with Alticor, Inc, the parent company of Amway Corp.

Born in New York City, Duthie was the oldest of seven children. He attended Rutgers University in New Jersey on a full basketball scholarship as well as New York University to fulfill the requirements for a master’s degree in journalism. A gifted athlete, he was also captain of the Rutgers University basketball team and a member of the 1970 Power Memorial 1970 National Championship high school basketball team from New York City. Asked why he chose journalism instead of going on to a lucrative professional basketball career, he answered with the title of the Wesley Snipes movie: “White men can’t jump.”

The sudden death left friends and associates in shock. Simon Elegant, a friend and former Time Magazine bureau chief in Beijing, called Mr Duthie a “true stand-up guy, a gentleman and a great journalist” whom he regarded as his mentor. SK Witcher, previously a copy editor and reporter in Singapore and Hong Kong for the Journal, called him “a great colleague and friend.” Michael Vatikiotis, the former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, called him “a kind and generous person as well as a great reporter.” Leslie Lopez, who succeeded him in the AWSJ Malaysian bureau, said he was “not just a colleague and dear friend. He was in every way a mentor.”

“I worked with Steve for more than 10 years in Singapore and Malaysia,” said Raphael Pura, a colleague. “He was the ultimate professional reporter. He went about his business calmly and meticulously, a no-drama guy. His stories would be bullet-proof, accurate and insightful. He covered dozens of stories, often breaking exclusive pieces. Beyond that, he was a steady and reliable friend, quietly always ready to help if help was needed.”

Duthie was a former member of the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the US-ASEAN Business Council, the Public Relations Society of America and the Asia Society. He is survived by his wife, Cheryl Kurepa, and daughters Mara and Milana, all of Michigan. A memorial service is to be held March 9 at the Bloomfield Open Hunt Club in Bloomfield Hills, MI at 11:15 am. Those who are unable to attend or who wish to further honor his memory may contribute to the American Cancer Society or to a charity of their choice.