There is a remarkable honesty in former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed’s account of his relationship with his former counterpart from across the causeway, the late Lee Kuan Yew.
“I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise,” Mahathir writes on his blog.
Saying that he first met Lee in Parliament in 1964, Mahathir added, “We crossed swords many times … But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn [Malaysia].”
He adds that it was Tunku Abdul Rahman who felt that the presence of Lee’s Peoples Action Party was going to be disruptive to the country, leading to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965.
Because both led their respective countries for such a long period of time, comparisons between Mahathir’s Malaysia and Lee’s Singapore have been inevitable. Those comparisons came to the fore again in the course of the last week, upon Lee’s passing.
One such comparison was attempted by Associated Press’s Eileen Ng.
Published on Australia’s ABC News yesterday, it sought to draw parallels between the two regimes – “authoritarianism, little tolerance for dissent and vision that changed the face of their countries.”
Claiming that both Lee and Mahathir ruled with “iron fists, curbing civil liberties and using harsh laws against political opponents,” the report claimed that both left “starkly different legacies.”
Of Lee’s legacy, the article said that he transformed Singapore, a country with no natural resources, into “Asia’s richest nation,” with a per capital income five times higher than Malaysia.
He also “crushed corruption at all levels, built a top-notch, efficient bureaucracy, set up an excellent education system and focused on creating world-class service industries that would be competitive in a global market.”
Mahathir, on the other hand, allegedly “created a patronage system by giving out contract to cronies, and his policies increased bureaucratic red tape. Despite having a much bigger workforce, he promoted and protected inefficient industries such as steel and cars with tariff protection.”
It concludes by claiming that Lee “achieved much, much more.”
But did he really?
While by and large Singapore mourned its founding father with an unprecedented outpouring of admiration and grief, there does appear that hidden pockets in society take a different view. See for example the opinion of Jess C Scott, carried by FMT on March 26.
There is also the recent controversial video by Singaporean teenager Amos Yee. Singapore’s Straits Times reported yesterday that he had been arrested on Sunday for making “insensitive remarks about Christianity in a YouTube video against Mr Lee Kuan Yew”.
Today, it reported that Yee had already been charged in court with uploading online materials intending to wound the religious feelings of Christians and offensive remarks on Lee Kuan Yew.
The swiftness of the reaction itself may point to a regime which even now will not condone criticism.
One of the many who filed a police report against Yee was Singaporean lawyer Chia Boon Teck, who apparently claimed, “This is not a mindless rant. It is a well-considered campaign backed by graphics and statistics to defame Mr Lee and our government. It cannot go unchallenged. He has to take responsibility for his social media posting that was calculated to provoke the public’s response.”
Many netizens, however, have come to Yee’s defence.
“Amos Yee is just one of many who voiced out. I reckon there are more to come,” posted a netizen known as “Teric Tan” on TR Emeritus, a blog that refers to itself as “the voice of Singaporeans for Singapore.”
Another wrote, “Dear Amos, you have spoken the truth which the rest have been over-intimidated for 5 decades to even speak 10% of the truth which you have spoken. However, it would be more acceptable to some if you were to leave out religion. As an old Catholic man, I have to let you know that your thoughts on Christianity/Jesus is not correct. Find out more on this topic, you will understand what I say and you will get on the right track – Jesus is the extreme opposite of LKY.”
So what legacy did Lee Kuan Yew leave behind? Economic success, undeniably yes. Free speech and fundamental liberties, maybe not.
It seems it will be open debate after all.