LIKE OTHER FEARLESS journalists, this writer has met lots of terrifyingly powerful human beings, including presidents, prime ministers, heads of state, and nurses putting on white rubber gloves.
My basic rules for meeting scary people have been acquired through trial and error.
1) Do not faint.
2) Do not drool.
3) Bow but don’t head-butt them. (Especially short, fragile people like the Queen of England.)
4) Do not kiss them on the lips. (If you do kiss them at all, “no tongues” is a good rule to follow.)
5) Mumble in an invented language so you don’t say anything embarrassing, etc.
But I had a feeling that the President of East Timor, whose name popped up in my engagements diary, was going to be different.
Wikipedia showed Jose Ramos-Horta as a tiny, brownish, unshaven revolutionary who had spent much of his life dodging bullets, not always successfully.
He probably wouldn’t be a stiff, scary guy in a dark suit, and would likely be less frightening than most presidents I’d encountered, and ALL the proctology nurses.
In a private room at one of Asia’s most expensive hotels, Raffles of Singapore, I waited with lots of dignitaries.
“He’ll be here in 30 seconds,” a lackey announced.
Right on schedule, President Ramos-Horta walked in—and marched straight across the room to where I stood.
“I’ve read your column,” he said, pumping my hand. I’m not making this up.
I was so astonished that my brain dematerialized, leaving me able only to make the following witty reply: “Ahsgdu hdgeb cldjdp exzxjebd.”
Now here’s a question that has baffled me all my life. Why is it that when one desperately, desperately needs to say something intelligent, one’s brain instantly transports itself to a parallel universe? What’s the evolutionary advantage of that, clever commentors?
President Ramos-Horta turned out to be a totally laid-back head of state who liked teasing people. He announced that he was going to so something about Singapore’s low birthrate problem.
I was about to say, “Thank you, Your Excellency, please impregnate as many of our women as you like,” when I remembered that I wasn’t Singaporean so couldn’t really grant him instant ownership of the city-state’s females. Only Lee Kuan Yew can do that.
But President Ramos-Horta produced a packet of East Timorese coffee which he explained would “save Singaporeans from extinction” because it had “a very strong Viagra component”.
Handing it to Singaporean arts supremo Jenny Chua, he added: “It works for men AND women.” What a joker.
In the evening, Dr Ramos-Horta revealed that there was a downside to his being such a relaxed, accessible leader.
He’d been at work one day when “New Message” beeped on his phone. It was from a student in his country complaining that he couldn’t do his homework because there had been a power cut.
“Pls restore power,” the kid demanded.
El Presidente had no idea what to do, so he didn’t do anything.
A short time later, the power was restored.
“Thanks!” said a follow-up message from the student.
“No problem,” said the President. A cool, funny guy can be president of a whole country. Who knew?
WARNING: If you live in any other country in Asia, DO NOT text your president and demand that he fix your utilities. If you do, you’ll soon find your utilities are the least of your problems.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if my brain has returned.