Af­ter Lee: Ma­hathir the last of SE Asia old guard


Two of Asia’s best-known strongmen, Sin­ga­pore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, had much in com­mon — a streak of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, lit­tle tol­er­ance for dis­sent and vi­sion that changed the face of their coun­tries.

But friends they were not, and the two rarely saw eye to eye. In fact one of their only agree­ments was to move their coun­tries’ time — which was 7 hours ahead of GMT — for­ward by half an hour to be in line with world time zones.

“”I am afraid on most other is­sues we could not agree ... I can­not say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew, but still I feel sad at his demise,” Ma­hathir wrote on his blog on Fri­day.

With Lee’s death at age 91, Ma­hathir re­mains the last of a gen­er­a­tion of old guards in Southeast Asia, which boomed eco­nom­i­cally un­der their au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­er­ship and came to be known as the “tiger economies.” In­done­sia’s Suharto, spo­ken in the same breath as th­ese two, died in 2008.

Both Lee and Ma­hathir were English-ed­u­cated lead­ers, who suc­cess­fully de­liv­ered eco­nomic pros­per­ity — to vary­ing de­grees — and gave in­ter­na­tional promi­nence to their coun­tries. They were re­spected, but ruled with iron fists, curb­ing civil lib­er­ties and us­ing harsh laws against po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

Yet Lee and Ma­hathir leave starkly dif­fer­ent lega­cies from their time in power.

Achieve­ments for Lee and


Dur­ing his 31 years as prime min­is­ter, Lee trans­formed Sin­ga­pore, a marshy is­land trad­ing post with no nat­u­ral re­sources, into Asia’s rich­est na­tion as mea­sured by GDP per capita, five times higher than Malaysia. He crushed cor­rup­tion at all lev­els, built a top­notch, 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, mean­while, fos­tered a pa­tron­age sys­tem by giv­ing out con­tracts to his cronies, and his poli­cies in­creased bu­reau­cratic red tape. De­spite hav­ing far more re­sources and a much big­ger work­force, he pro­moted and pro­tected in­ef­fi­cient in­dus­tries such as steel and cars with tar­iff pro­tec­tion.

“Both men are equally Machi­avel­lian in their meth­ods. They are both alike in the kind of pol­i­tics they em­ploy but Lee Kuan Yew achieved much, much more than Ma­hathir de­spite hav­ing a lot less re­sources and cap­i­tal,” said Malaysian po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ibrahim Suf­fian.

Although the two were con­tem­po­raries — Ma­hathir is only two years younger — Lee shot to promi­nence much ear­lier. He was al­ready the prime min­is­ter of Sin­ga­pore when it be­came in­de­pen­dent of Bri­tish colo­nial rule in 1963. The same year the small is­land­na­tion joined neigh­bor­ing Malaya to form the Fed­er­a­tion of Malaysia, be­liev­ing it needed to be part of a big­ger coun­try to sur­vive. Ma­hathir be­came a Par­lia­ment mem­ber in 1964, and that was the first time the two met.

But the fed­er­a­tion was a mar­riage that was doomed to fail. For one, the eth­nic Malay lead­ers of Malaysia were sus­pi­cious of Lee, an eth­nic Chi­nese. Soon ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences sur­faced, and Sin­ga­pore was ex­pelled from the fed­er­a­tion in 1965, leav­ing Lee to set his own course with a vi­sion that un­til to­day de­fines Sin­ga­pore.

He en­sured that the coun­try ran on mer­i­toc­racy. He de­manded the best prices and most ef­fi­cient com­pa­nies han­dle gov­ern­ment projects. Gov­ern­ment-linked com­pa­nies com­pete for projects with pri­vate com­pa­nies. Although eth­nic Chi­nese are a ma­jor­ity in Sin­ga­pore, and Malays and In­di­ans form large mi­nori­ties, no­body gets spe­cial pref­er­ence.

“De­spite his au­toc­racy, Lee Kuan Yew was driven with build­ing mer­i­toc­racy that saw Sin­ga­pore grow by leaps and bounds, but Malaysia is hob­bled by its racial pol­i­tics and in­se­cu­ri­ties,” Ibrahim said.

Ma­hathir, who be­came prime min­is­ter in 1981, cham­pi­oned an af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion pro­gram for the coun­try’s Malay ma­jor­ity, which to this day is the root cause of deep dis­en­chant­ment among the mi­nor­ity Chi­nese and In­di­ans. Ma­hathir saw the Malays — with good rea­son — as down­trod­den and gave them priv­i­leges in busi­ness, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing. He pro­moted race­based pol­i­tics to en­sure that his Malay party dom­i­nated pol­i­tics. That le­gacy con­tin­ues.

Crit­i­cisms for Lead­ers

Lee faced crit­i­cism for the strict lim­its on free speech and public protest, which he in­sisted were nec­es­sary to main­tain sta­bil­ity and or­der and to pro­mote eco­nomic growth in his multiethnic, mul­tire­li­gious coun­try. Although his elec­toral pol­i­tics to quash the op­po­si­tion were ques­tion­able, his Peo­ple’s Ac­tion Party, or PAP, has mem­bers from all races.

“Lee was an un­shake­able bul­wark against ma­jori­tar­ian ten­den­cies that could have eas­ily over­whelmed Sin­ga­pore,” said Che­rian Ge­orge, a Sin­ga­pore au­thor, aca­demic and com­men­ta­tor. “Lee went to the ex­tent of amend­ing the repub­lic’s Con­sti­tu­tion to stop any party from sweep­ing into power with­out mi­nor­ity sup­port,” he wrote on his blog on Sun­day.

Ma­hathir, a doc­tor-turned-politi­cian and Malaysia’s fourth prime min­is­ter, helped turn the coun­try from an agri­cul­tural back­wa­ter into a key trad­ing na­tion dur­ing his 22-year rule be­fore step­ping down in 2003. With the help of mas­sive petroleum and palm oil rev­enues, he over­saw grand in­fra­struc­ture projects such as the Petronas Twin Tow­ers, which once were the world’s tallest; he also built a tech­nol­ogy hub, a new cap­i­tal city and an F1 race track.

He also used a se­cu­rity law al­low­ing in­def­i­nite detention with­out trial against po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and crit­ics. And un­like Lee, he was no friend of the West. In fact, he lost no op­por­tu­nity to crit­i­cize it, es­pe­cially the U.S. war in Iraq.

Sin­ga­pore’s higher wages, stan­dard of living and merit-based sys­tem have drawn tens of thou­sands of Malaysians, mainly eth­nic Chi­nese, to the city-state. A 2011 World Bank re­port said more than 1 mil­lion Malaysians live abroad and warned the out­flow of skilled work­ers could hurt Malaysia’s econ­omy.

Lee stepped down as prime min­is­ter in 1990, but re­mained a com­mand­ing pres­ence in Sin­ga­pore pol­i­tics and the re­gion for decades. He also suc­cess­fully groomed his son Lee Hsien Loong, who be­came Sin­ga­pore’s prime min­is­ter in 2004.

Ma­hathir, how­ever, failed to re­tain much clout af­ter he re­signed.

To­day he is seen by many as a for­mer leader who rails against his suc­ces­sors and be­moans in his blogs the weak gov­er­nance of a coun­try he once dom­i­nated.

A re­cent blog com­ment cap­tured his ever-crit­i­cal out­look: There’s “some­thing rot­ten in the state of Malaysia.”

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