With Lee’s passing, Mahathir is the last of South East Asia’s Mohicans

March 31, 2015

With Lee’s passing, Mahathir is  the last of South East Asia’s Mohicans

by Eileen Ng

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — 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.

Lee and Dr. MahathirBut 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 ½ 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. 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 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, 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 island-nation 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.

“We crossed swords many time during the debates. But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation,” Mahathir wrote.

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 race-based politics to ensure that his Malay party dominated politics. That legacy continues.

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 multi-ethnic, multi-religious 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.”

14 thoughts on “With Lee’s passing, Mahathir is the last of South East Asia’s Mohicans

  1. The two authoritarians ruled their countries with different outcomes. The results are for all to see. Corruption is rampant in Malaysia whereas the island republic is a model of good governance. Lee made his country as oasis of prosperity and growth with a first world status, while Malaysia is lagging behind due to weak leadership which condones corruption, racism and religious extremism. Lee created competent leaders. Mahathir chose successors who could not outshine him.–Din Merican

  2. If there were real successors that could outshine Mahathir that person would have already risen to the top regardless of any help or patronage. At the very least he would have made himself noticeable as a formidable candidate and we would have taken note of the person’s bright ideas. Wouldn’t be much of a leader if he can’t get himself known, would he? the lack thereof just shows that there isn’t much to pick from UMNO, not so much that Mahathir purposely picked someone who would not outshine him. Pray tell, who among the current crop of politicians you think would be a worthy successor to Mahathir regardless of their political affiliation? of course we have to take into consideration Malaysia’s social realities.
    I don’t think you quite under the situation here. First, good and honest people in Malaysia avoid dirty politics. Second, the good ones don’t join UMNO because they know that they will not be accepted by the party leadership. Third, the party system is so corrupt that unless you are prepared to spend lots of money, you will not get anywhere. The party system based on nepotism and feudalism. BTW, Mahathir is not like LKY who identifies the best and mentors them. The former Malaysian Prime Minister will pick those who can say yes to him.–Din Merican

  3. Quote:- “…of course we have to take into consideration Malaysia’s social realities”

    Of course…….

    So long as the majority Malays cannot accept a non-Malay as PM, (if a potentially promising one comes along), in the same way the non-Malays accept and respect a Malay PM, whatever the quality, then Malaysia will never ever have a quality government, period.

    The ball is solely in the Malaysian Malays’ court. So please do not dream about becoming like Singapore where the present Attorney-General, finance minister and minister for foreign affairs and past presidents and chief justice were all Indians which form only 9% of the population.

  4. Regardless of how dirty the party system is, to be elected as a leader the person has to enter a political party because it is the only way to select political leaders, and since we have to elect leaders from political parties like it or not we have to look at the party system. And even if we consider that the good ones don’t join UMNO, who then is capable from the opposition (hence my conditional statement “regardless of political affiliation”)? The point is, even with a wider pool to pick from that includes opposition politicians, who should we elect to become PM?

    On a side note, to say that Mahathir did not identify and mentor is patently false – we all know he tried that with Anwar. But alas that did not work out for reasons including incompetency in managing the AFC. Yet he still managed to be the brightest hope for the opposition, so indeed Mahathir did attempt to identify and mentor the best. but this is

  5. One built his country the other destroyed It. One protected the countrys institutions the other worked to destroy their fabric.one worked on meritocracy the other on special rights.one worked for the country the other worked for his pocket.one retired honorably the other cried and broke an ampuuing women ministers shoe.one retired fine but served under his son the other retired but cannot rest till his son become PM.one retired and kept his stature and respect the other retyred meaning re tyred and still trying to fix his tyres.etc. etc finally one passed on and got sent off with most respect the other wondering wether
    sungai buloh will be his last residence.
    Questions?? Quesstions!!

  6. Despite both PMs having strong authoritarian tendencies in governing but TDM’s administration basically institutionalised a system that entrenched rampant political corruption as the norm – whilst LKY demonstrated what can be achieved by a goverment with a zero tolerance of corruption.That’s the underlying difference between the 2 PMs and their respective ideals of Governing a nation with a multi cultural identity.
    For LKY it was all or nothing,and particularly stern against money politics that drags many Goverments down.
    Self-less interests style of governing of LKY ,everything was for the best interests of his nation state vs Selfish interests of TDM’s goverment – inverted priorities .!

    LKY’s pragmatism and foresight in recognising the formula to efficient governing above all , is a clean goverment with no nonsense approach to corruption- whereby TDM opted to leverage corrupt practices to his political advantage and hence a barely functional goverment machinery ,prioritized by greed and personal interests in accumulating wealth , as among the driving force formulas – was put into momentum, where practices such as “commisions ,percentages ,third party or under table etc etc” are the standard – without which things may not get done efficiently.

    And that momentum hasn’t stopped sliding downhill ever since – casting aside Govermental Transparency/ Accountability .

    Just mull on what the word ” Kow Tim” means to Malaysians. Essentially in most Malaysian psyches,most will just good naturedly shrugged it off as how things “are” and always “have been” in dealings with the establishment . And nothing objectionable to the term.

    Yet in SIngaporean mindsets,even a whiff of something similar can land one in hot soup and is an abhorrent thing to even suggest as an option to gain any advantage in commercial enterprises or extricate one from a bind with the authorities..
    That is the stark difference in the societal mindsets of the 2 nations.

    Malaysians visiting or working in Singapore will never dare to even hint at “Kow Tim” when dealing with Singaporean Authorities/Civil service/Ministries , knowing for a fact that its un-acceptable and not tolerated and definitely worsen things if they are already in trouble with the authorities.

    But on the other hand , almost instinctively, “Kow Tim” or “selesai ” or ” settle” will be amongst the open options , considered in the mindsets , if they are in a “situation” in Malaysia, in dealing with authority.
    Fact is that , the thought of perhaps they can buy themselves out of a “tight spot” in whatever trouble they are in – comes to mind.
    But in Singapore,that thought is banished and dare not be entertained as a reflex and rule.
    That’s the difference of the environment and societal psyches in Singapore and Malaysia.,where ,in the former ,- regardless of ethnicity /nationality – country of origin – All in residence in the city state – acknowledge and respect and take the rule of law and clean governance very seriously .

    And that is the essence of LKY’s premiership that to his credit ,managed to inculcate into non-Singaporean residents ,a healthy respect for the laws of the city state , forged a level of self-discipline into not only the average Singaporeans but also those who do public service for their own Singaporean people – always having the collective best interests of the nation and sense of well being of the people as the priority..

    And in-place is a Govermental structure that is efficient and by and large non-corruptible.The anchor formula or foundation pillar that supports all the policies and strategies which resulted in the Singaporean goverment’s economic success and prosperity..

    The formula that TDM chosed to ignore but instead selected govermental patronage , selectively enriching hand picked cronies , who through their collective accumulated wealth , can be translated into power and influence that can be leveraged to political advantage. And be used to stay the hold on power.

    Inadvertently ,the wealth of the nation was unevenly distributed, and even those supposed to be beneficiaries of the Govermental affirmative action policies was invariably sidelined..

  7. /// 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.///

    This is where the similarities end.

    1) One was a Minister Mentor; the other Minister Tormentor.
    2) One was a global statesman; the other issued inane and sarcastic statements against globalization.
    3) One served his country; the other uses the country to serve himself.
    4) One nurtured his successors; the other neutered his successors.
    5) One was invited to the White House, the other bought himself to the White House.
    6) One turned vulnerability into strength (lack of water); the other turned strengths (oil, tin, rubber, timber, water, etc.) into curses.
    7) One protected the minorities; the other protected the majority.
    8) One brought his country from Third World to First World; the other from Second World to Third World.

  8. Its actually pointless to just compare the two. The real problem is what LKY’s patriotism cannot be passed forward in a material driven nation while Mahathir’s racism and corruption is TOO EASILY to be passed forward and made worst. The weakness is in both, and Mahathir’s much worst..

  9. The commonality between Harry and Chedet is that people voted for them knowing what they were getting into. The difference is that Harry hooked them with material gains and efficiency , while Chedet ensured that the gravy train was always spilling over and people were too busy getting their own.

  10. In the US Greenspan was Chairman of the FED for a long time. When he finally left they still could get a good candidate although many potential candidate just became old and retired. The US can afford that because the world is their talent pool. Smaller countries cannot afford that because their talent pool shrinks in proportion to period of stay in a particular post.

  11. Well the results clearly shows one country has ZERO debt and the other one OWEING till their eye balls with the people having FORCED to pay for the debts created by greed!

  12. /// bigjoe99 April 1, 2015 at 10:44 am
    Its actually pointless to just compare the two. The real problem is what LKY’s patriotism cannot be passed forward in a material driven nation while Mahathir’s racism and corruption is TOO EASILY to be passed forward and made worst. The weakness is in both, and Mahathir’s much worst.. ///

    The point is both operating systems are institutionalized.

    Patriotism cannot be passed down, but LKY went all out to institutionalize what he could – CPIB, clean and competent civil service, key institutions, meritocracy, etc.

    Madhathir institutionalized corruption, racial politics and incompetence.

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