Cambridge- educated Economist Dato’ Malek Merican passes on

July 10, 2015

I just learned  this morning of the passing of Dato’ Malek Ali Merican, a senior and illustrious member of the Merican family. I suddenly remembered him and googled his name and read the following news clip (below) in The Star.

My wife Dr. Kamsiah and I wish to convey our belated condolences to Omar, Azmi and Karina Merican, Dato’ Dr. Mahmood Merican and Datin Ragayah and other members of his family and our relatives on their bereavement. I missed this sad news as I seldom read The Star and other mainstream newspapers.

Malek and MahmoodDato’ Malek and Dato Dr. Mahmood Merican

Dato Malek and his wife Datin Gaik Merican were in Washington DC  when I was a student there in 1968-1970. They were kind and helpful to me. I remember enjoying lunches with Dato’ Malik at the IMF-World Bank Executive Lounge and the excellent meals at their home. We talked about May 13, when we heard of the racial riots in the wires and tried to figure out how and why it happened. We agreed at the time that it had to do with politics..

When I was in Sime Darby, I had the opportunity to work with him in his capacity as Director of Corporate Affairs and Planning before he joined Arab-Malaysian  Merchant Bank. I shall miss this brilliant Cambridge trained economist who was also with the Malaysian Treasury when Tun Tan Siew Sin who was the Minister of Finance. We last met at Omar’s private ceremony to honour his late mother, Datin Gaik. My economic tutor and mentor, Tan Sri Rama Iyer was also present. I shall remember Dato’ Malek for his contributions to our country. May Allah Bless his soul.–Din Merican

The Passing of Dato Malek Ali Merican

The Star (–June 12, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR: The late Dato’ Malek Merican had an illustrious career in the banking industry, and was renowned for setting a strong foundation for Amlnvestment Bank.

Malek, who passed away on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at the age of 80, joined AmMerchant Bank Bhd in 1982. He resigned as the Managing Director of AmMerchant Bank Bhd in November 1989 and served as the Vice Chairman of Malayan United Industries Bhd and Managing Director of MUI Bank Bhd until 1990. He rejoined the board of AmMerchant Bank Bhd in May 1990 and served until May 2004. He was also a board member of Pheim Emerging (M) Bhd and Pheim Unit Trusts Bhd in the 2000s.

An economics graduate from Cambridge University, he also holds a Bachelor of Letters in Economics from Oxford University. He served the Treasury for 15 years from 1958 and finally as the Deputy Secretary-General for the Finance, Economic and Tax divisions. Between 1969 and 1971, he was seconded as alternate Executive Director representing 10 countries of Southeast Asia on the Board of the International Monetary Fund.

He was the Deputy at Aseambankers Malaysia Bhd and subsequently made the Managing Director from 1974 to 1979. Prior to joining AmMerchant Bank, he was the Group Director of Corporate Affairs and Planning at Sime Darby Bhd.

Azmi Merican remembers his Dad, Dato’ Malek Merican

My father passed away on June 9. There might be some obits in the local business press but they are not out yet. He had been battling Parkinson’s Disease. Yesterday I got an urgent call but when I got to his place twenty minutes later he was already gone probably due to sudden heart failure.

He was an intelligent man with a gentle appearance. Yet he was an investment banker. My mother once said that he was “absolutely useless” with a deep sigh. How have you arrived at this withering assessment I asked? On account of the fact that he has never made a cup of tea for himself. Or anyone else for that matter.

After my mother passed away I took him out for dinner to investigate this allegation. Surely he had made a cup of tea once in his student days? It’s not rocket science. You boil the kettle. You put a tea bag in a mug. Pour in the water. Voila.The thing is my father’s student days were a tad privileged. He got a scholarship.

Over that meal he told me proudly of how two gentlemen from the [British] Colonial Office turned up to Kuala Kangsar to interview* him* for Cambridge. My father had attended Malay College Kuala Kangsar an Etonian-like college set up by the British. He was the Head Boy. I gathered that he passed the interview.

Then he told me a bit about life in Corpus College Cambridge. You had your meals at specific times in a dining hall (I visualized it as oak paneled). You went to college during term time. You spent your scholarship allowance. You dressed in robes to lectures. Your robes were laid out for you by a porter (sort of like a concierge.) each morning. This was Cambridge in the 1950s. He had a personal tutor. ( A Mr.Macrum who became a Headmaster at Eton College).

Malek cup of tea? Well I supposed the porter made it. My jaw dropped a bit. I realized he didn’t watch “Downton Abbey” because of some quaint cultural fascination. He used to live in that world. And still does. He proudly told me that he felt that he got a better education in those days than you do now.

So after Cambridge he went to Oxford. Then he worked in the Treasury where he became the Secretary General. (A 6 month training course to the IMF in Washington DC meant that “hopeless” man survived off those cartons of chocolate milk that you buy in U.S. Supermarkets) Then he left government service ( the pecking order grew tiresome.) after 15 years of service.

He became a merchant banker. Job titles like Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer(jobs where you get refreshments served by a tea lady pushing a trolley around the building). His chairman at AmBank fondly mentions him in his memoirs as a person who added value to the business. However, he never seems to have made a cup of tea (or coffee) for himself or anyone else.

Indeed a few months ago I got him to buy a Nespresso coffee maker. You just have to press the button. His fingers had become just too weak to press the button. I sighed though not quite as deeply as my mother.

He spoke good 1950s English. Sometimes I had to “translate” his kind of English to other people. If you offered him a cup of coffee he did not say: Yes, Please. Or “That would be nice.” Nope. Malek Merican even when he had trouble speaking due to disease verbalized his reply this way:

“Yes. If it is not a burden”. It made you feel that you were doing a service to the nation. My daughter says that if he resembles anybody in a TV series it has to be Don Draper of “MadMen.”

Cambodia: The Passing of a Patriot

June 8, 2015

Phnom Penh

The Passing of a Patriot

by AFP

His Excellency Samdech Akeak Moha Thomak Pothisal Chea Sim, Protean Protsaphea ney Preah Reacheanachak Kampuchea, a key Cambodian political figure after the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and an ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has died today at age 82, the head of his bodyguard unit says. He had been in ill-health for many years and hospitalized in recent months.

Chea Sim

His Excellency Samdech Chea Sim was President of the ruling Cambodian People s Party since it was formed in 1991, and President of the Senate since 1999. He became a revolutionary in the 1950s and like Hun Sen was a member of the communist Khmer Rouge when they seized power in 1975 after a civil war.

Both men fled the group to join a resistance faction groomed by neighboring Vietnam, which installed them as Cambodia’s new leaders after ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979.–AFP

The Passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

March 23, 2015

Our sincere condolences to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his family, my friends and associates and the people of Singapore on the passing of  Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore. In our view, Mr. Lee now belongs in the pantheon of great world leaders. Mr Lee made it possible for Singapore to be the model of good governance and multiculturalism.–Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

Lee Kuan Yew Obituary

The founding Prime Minister of an independent Singapore, he sought to encourage prosperity through ensuring a dominant role for the state.
Lee-Kuan-YewAs first Prime Minister of Singapore, serving for three decades until 1990, and a continuing cabinet presence for the two that followed, Lee Kuan Yew, who has died aged 91, was a man whose story reflected his times. A relentless nation-builder like Tito, an instantly identifiable symbol like Haile Selassie, Lee also had a third dimension, especially in western eyes – statesman, philosopher king, embodiment of the wisdom of the east.

Lee’s role in and articulation of events from the Pacific war and the Japanese occupation of Singapore till leaving politics completely in 2011 made him a pivotal figure of the modern world. To many he became the embodiment of the orderly transition of a region from western dominance to neo-Confucian success. Yet experience had taught him to be a pessimist, which drove him to work harder, to be more ruthless.

Lee himself may not have changed the world outside little Singapore very much. Indeed, his greatest apparent achievement, the creation of a viable independent state, was the outcome of his biggest failure – Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, two years after the organisation’s inception. His first vision of Singapore’s future, as part of a multicultural Malaysia, may prove in time to have been the correct one, but he can be at least partly judged by the achievement of his second vision for Singapore, the prosperous, prickly and obsessively hygienic city state.

He did not create modern Singapore’s prosperity. The city state thrived naturally in a region of economic growth and rapid development of world trade. However, he certainly created the image of the state in his own likeness.

Being liked was not part of his agenda. A combination of high intelligence and unswervable determination were Lee’s characteristics, and he transferred them, at least superficially, to modern Singapore. Without him, it may in time go a different way, more reflective of its multiracial background and potentially precarious existence. But while he was alive few dared think, let alone put forward, alternative visions.

Lee has been described as many things. To Chinese, particularly during his days fighting Chinese chauvinism in the name of a multiracial Singapore identity, the Cambridge-educated lawyer brought up to believe in English education if not in British institutions, Lee was a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white inside. However, later in life, as Chinese identity and Confucian attitudes emphasising education, discipline and hierarchy became more important, he would be criticised for presenting himself as a fount of wisdom, a convincing articulator of modern Asia to western audiences, while actually behaving with all the intolerance of a Chinese emperor. At his worst, he could combine imperial hauteur with extraordinarily petty spite, relishing the destruction of irritating but unthreatening critics. At his best, he had an incisive mind and clear political judgment. For an avowed elitist, he had a remarkable ability to talk to a crowd.

Born in Singapore, Lee was the eldest son of Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo, members of a comfortably off but not rich Straits Chinese family. The Straits Chinese were those who had been settled in the region for many years, losing much of their Chinese identity both to the language and institutions of their British rulers, and to the Malays, their neighbours whose tongue was the lingua franca of south-east Asia.

The young Harry, as Yew was known in the English-language environment of the time, came first in Malaya in the Senior Cambridge exams (the equivalent of A-levels) of 1939 and was destined to go to Britain to study law. But the second world war intervened and he had to go to the local Raffles College instead, where he acquired some basic economics, and met his future wife, Kwa Geok Choo. The delay in going to Britain was but a minor inconvenience compared with the sudden and humiliating British surrender of Singapore in February 1942. Lee described his own initial humiliation at the hands of Japanese troops as “the single most important event of my life”.

Little is known of his actual role during the occupation, other than that he learned Japanese (he had a remarkable facility for languages), worked for Domei, the Japanese news agency, and may in the latter days of the war been of help to the British. The obscurity with which this period has been shrouded subsequently gave rise to much speculation about his relationships with the British and the Japanese. But he saw enough of British failures not to want to ape them, and enough of Japanese brutality – mostly directed against the recent migrant Chinese than against the more compromising Straits Chinese – to resent them. As he later wrote, he emerged from the war “determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick us around”.

Combining drive with connections, he got himself to Britain in 1946 to study at the London School of Economics. But deciding he needed to aim higher, he talked his way into Fitzwilliam Hall, Cambridge, and graduated in 1949 with a starred first in law. His wife-to-be, whom he married the following year, also got a first.

It was also during this time that he began to develop ambitions beyond returning home to a prosperous legal career. He recognised that the British could not recreate the comfortable, colonial Singapore of prewar days. Nationalism, socialism and communism were in the air. In a speech in 1950 to the Malayan Forum in London, he said: “The choice lies between a communist republic of Malaya and a Malaya within the British Commonwealth led by people who, despite their opposition to imperialism, still share certain ideals in common with the Commonwealth … if we [the returning students] do not give leadership, it will come from the other ranks of society.” Malaya, he noted prophetically, could be either “another Palestine or another Switzerland”.

Even before returning to Singapore, Lee had identified the strands necessary to make a successful politician with the aim of securing an independent, non-communist Malaya. The first was a commitment to greater social justice and income distribution. This was part of the ethos of the time, both in Britain, where Lee was involved with the Labour party, and with such exemplars of independence and social democracy as Nehru’s India. But it was also necessary politics. Lee believed that without a commitment to both anti-imperialism and socialism, radicals would win control of the freedom struggle.

The other element in Lee’s equation was multiracialism, which he saw as necessary to prevent Malaya from dissolving into war between two nationalisms, a Chinese one which was communist in sympathy and a Malay one which tended to be exclusive and feudal.

Back in Singapore, Lee the lawyer and Lee the politician were soon inseparable as he took up the cases of trade unionists, radicals and nationalists. Being from the British-educated Chinese elite, he had to work all the harder at being a leader to dialect-speaking Chinese and Indian union firebrands. His energy and application were prodigious, and he added fluency in Mandarin and Hokkien and passable Malay and even Tamil to his roster of languages.

He was the driving force behind the creation of the People’s Action party (PAP) in 1954, including within it people sympathetic to the communist insurgency, then at its height in the Malayan peninsular. The PAP adhered to constitutionalism while Lee acted for those detained under the Internal Security Act.

Lee’s fortunes as a politician benefited from his bravura courtroom performances. It was this very success with juries that made him critical of the jury system. Judges were less easily swayed by emotion, and were appointed by the government. Once in power, Lee abolished juries.

Despite his advocacy on behalf of leftists and nationalists, there were those who believed he connived to ensure that the left faction did not get the upper hand in the PAP. The party, which had been seen as the main agent of constitutional development in Singapore, swept aside more conservative forces to win the 1959 election by a large margin. Lee became chief minister of a self-governing state within the Commonwealth, promoting social reform but retaining political detention without trial.

His principal objective became to achieve, in co-operation with the Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, independence through merger with a somewhat suspicious Malaya – which had been independent since 1957 – plus the territories of Sarawak and Sabah to form Malaysia. The PAP was divided on this and other issues and formally split in 1961, the left faction forming the Barisan Sosialis. However, the merger proposal was approved in a referendum.

Lee further solidified his position by mass detentions, including those of prominent Barisan leaders. Though he justified the detentions by reference to the lingering communist threat and Indonesia’s avowed opposition to Malaysia, they came to symbolise Lee’s authoritarian tendencies. With the Barisan decapitated, he won the 1963 election and the Barisan never recovered.

While unification made sense to the moderate majority of Singaporeans and Malayans, it soon ran into problems. Chief among them was the reluctance of the hyperactive Lee to play second fiddle to a Kuala Lumpur-based federal government led by the relaxed, aristocratic tunku, or prince. Lee insisted on the PAP trying to win seats in the peninsula itself, in the process setting itself up as the party more likely to protect Chinese interests than the Malaysian Chinese Association, the conservative Chinese element of the tunku’s ruling alliance. Lee made speeches which many regarded as racially inflammatory. Some Malays wanted him arrested. In the end, the tunku decided in August 1965 that the only way out was for Singapore to leave the federation.

One vision had failed. Now Lee redoubled his efforts to create a new vision – of a republic of Singapore with its own identity and national interests that could hold its own among potentially hostile neighbours. Malaysia and Singapore still needed each other. The Indonesian policy of confrontation ended with the downfall of Sukarno in 1966. However, times were difficult, exacerbated by British military withdrawal, which created additional problems of finding jobs for a rapidly expanding population.

The first 10 years after the expulsion from Malaysia saw Lee forge the society that is modern Singapore. It could have been done differently. Colonial Hong Kong, so similar in many ways, prospered as well without the guidance of a “philosopher king” or a “Moses”, as Lee was to be later described. Nonetheless, Lee was very much in charge of the new Singapore and thus deserves the credit, and the blame.

The ingredients included a dominant role for the state. This combined aspects of social democracy, for example in major efforts to improve health and public housing, with “the mandarins know best” attitudes to social and economic activity.

Foreign capital was relied upon to create jobs. This was a pragmatic recognition from the beginning that Singapore lacked the capital and know how to create industries. Meanwhile its entrepot role was, by definition, dependent on the services it could provide to foreigners.

Nationalism was fostered too, which meant infusing an opportunistic, multiracial commercial hub with a Singapore identity, sense of pride, citizenship and separateness. It meant having strong armed forces, a Swiss-style national service and international assertiveness.

For Lee, western notions of liberal democracy, free association, independent trade unions, juries and other aspects of the separation of powers might have proved an obstacle to achieving these nation-building goals. Yet he was well aware that the British had left behind some democratic expectations, and in order to compete economically, Singapore had to present itself to the outside world as a reasonably open as well as competently run state.

Some government intervention in the economy was simply pragmatic. But much of it had political overtones. The state, for example, created what is now the largest commercial bank, the Development Bank of Singapore, though there was never any lack of private ones. Its forced savings scheme was a colonial-era provident fund that was used to generate savings that helped give Singapore the best infrastructure in Asia. The scheme gave the government control over far more money than it needed, thus enabling it to dictate not only the pattern of investment but housing and consumer spending. The nation amassed huge foreign reserves, which underpinned its growth, reflected in a currency that was as strong as the German mark.

Emphasis on education, especially in science, helped Singapore develop as a base for multinationals. Lee’s government was very successful in identifying and fostering growth industries, whether it was the Asiadollar money market in the late 60s, oil exploration, production and refinery services in the 70s, or electronics in the 90s. However, critics – and even some government loyalists – noted a decline in the entrepreneurial spirit. Educated Singaporeans did not create enterprises: they went to work, very efficiently, for ones already created by foreigners, or the government. The administration was both extraordinarily pedantic and uncorrupt. Yet part of Singapore’s prosperity rested on it providing a safe haven for money made corruptly in neighbouring countries, smuggling or drug trafficking.

Intellectually, Lee recognised the importance of money-making. Money brought power. Yet he exhibited the kind of distaste for businessmen common among Chinese mandarins, socialists and intellectuals. Thus Singapore’s indigenous capitalists were kept on a short leash. From time to time prominent examples were made of “misbehaviour”.

For all its potential shortcomings, for all its dependence on the growth of neighbours, the rise of Japan and latterly of China, the reality is that for four decades from 1970 Singapore delivered economic growth rates almost as good as any in booming east Asia. There have been few hiccups. Thanks to the prosperity of its oil-producing neighbours, Singapore rode the oil crises easily. The mid-80s recession necessitated some minor policy adjustments, but generally, once the mould had been established, Singapore’s economic progress was as unruffled as its politics.

Internationally, Lee played a key role in the development of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). At first he had been somewhat suspicious, fearing it could become a vehicle for Indonesian domination, or an expression of pan-Malay identity. However, he soon embraced it as an anti-communist buffer which linked countries with formal ties to the US (Thailand and Philippines) to the anti-communist but “neutral” Indonesia and Malaysia. Anti-communism cemented Singapore’s ties with the US when it badly needed implied protection as well as investment. With ties to Washington and Beijing, Lee helped to ensure that Asean participated fully in the cold war to force Vietnam out of Cambodia.

In practice, politics seldom stood in the way of business opportunities. After all, Singapore was commerce (not ideology) in action. But once the Soviet empire had collapsed, foreign policy emphasis changed to a wholehearted pursuit of economic goals. Again, Singapore was quick to see the advantages of turning ASEAN attention to trade, providing a new raison d’etre for the group. Freer trade was not just good for Singapore but for the region’s ethnic Chinese business community, many of whom saw Singapore as their spiritual home and salted away profits there.

In social as in economic affairs, Lee tried to shape society to an extent attempted perhaps only by Mao Zedong in recent times. What began in the early years as a voluntary family-planning campaign ended up with the state trying to influence marriage choices and “enhance” Singapore’s genetic quality by encouraging graduates to reproduce among themselves. Myriad rules, taxes, incentives and exhortations confronted the citizen. The result was an orderly society, but only marginally freer of crime than Hong Kong. It was a society where people were afraid to speak out. Lee the great debater was now the winner by default, whether in parliament or the courts.

While continuing with parliamentary elections, Lee muzzled the press, international as well as local, and stamped hard on opponents of the PAP. Opposition politicians were hounded by legal actions – often for libel, which Lee invariably won – and bankrupted. Social workers were branded as communists and detained till they confessed, often after coercive treatment.

Quite why Lee, revered as the father of the nation, found it necessary to use such sledgehammers was not clear. In the 50s, the communists were real and ruthless. But as time went on, real threats vanished. Yet the unrelenting ambition did not, and Lee was unable to change his self-image as a political streetfighter, the gang boss who forever had to prove his ruthlessness. Beyond that, he had a sense of insecurity about the future of Singapore after he was gone. Partly this was a sense that society would go soft with success, or, like the Malays, surrender to the easy languor of the tropics. The younger generation knew only success and the cultivation of wealth.

He, with his recollections of Japanese occupation, the expulsion from Malaysia, the potential threat from Indonesia, always imagined the worst. Singapore could not afford gentlemanly disagreements or real debates. The leaders led, and that was it.

Increasingly, there was only one leader. Comrades from the heroic anti-colonial days retired, drifted away or were pushed out – in the case of President Devan Nair in 1985, after a humiliating allegation of alcoholism that he contested. New blood was brought into the PAP, but increasingly it became a tightknit elite. It retained an effective command structure but the mass base eroded.

The so-called second generation had no real political experience but was full of intellectual accomplishment. Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee as prime minister in 1990, was a competent and well-liked bureaucrat, but Lee remained in cabinet as senior minister. In 2004, Lee’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister, and his father “minister mentor”. He resigned from that cabinet position in May 2011 following an electoral setback when the PAP share of the vote fell to its lowest level since independence. He then took no further part in public life.

Goh had been unable to deliver the “kinder, gentler” Singapore that had been expected. The force of Lee’s personality, the moral authority that he commanded, left him the arbiter of anything he cared about. Like a Mao in miniature, he seemed both to enjoy and have contempt for the adulation that surrounded him. Never a tolerant man, he began to show some of the symptoms of age. International acclaim added to his convictions of his own brilliance and righteousness.

Some saw excesses of personal power, not just in his treatment of opponents but in the rapid promotion of his sons. The Singapore courts silenced a string of suggestions of dynastic politics.

With Goh and Hsien Loong minding day-to-day affairs, Lee was free to devote his energies to the world. He saw in the economic success of East Asia the triumph of “Confucian values”: discipline, order, respect for education and authority over western values of individualism, liberalism and democracy. He even succeeded for a while in promoting Singapore as the centre of “Asian values”. Lee was especially heartened by China’s economic success, defended its political repression and criticised Taiwan’s new-found democracy. China’s success fitted not only with his own philosophy but with the increasing emphasis in Singapore on its predominantly Chinese, as distinct from multiracial, character.

Ethnic prejudice lurked just under Lee’s image of technocratic rationalism. He combined assumptions about Chinese cultural supremacy with belief in genetic theories which influenced social policy in Singapore. But if Lee’s actions were sometimes driven by gut instinct, his head was more often the winner, particularly in international affairs. He could set aside his underlying distaste for America, with its crude culture and populist politics, and his Chinese ethnic sentiments to deliver masterly analyses of regional and global affairs. Only occasionally did he let prejudices get in the way of Singapore’s national interest – which, he clearly saw, lay with keeping US forces in the region.

Perhaps only he could succeed in making oppressive Singapore the main Asian critic of the US commitment to human rights and personal freedoms while ensuring that Singapore remained a key to the strategic plans of American military and multinationals alike.

Mostly – though not always – he could guard his tongue sufficiently to keep his Malay neighbours co-operative. His sheer length of service gave him a regional prestige that only Suharto could match, and his successors would not inherit. Suharto, with 180 million people and a vast archipelago to rule, had a big stage, while Lee gave every sign of regarding Singapore – with a population of 5 million in 700 square kilometres – as far too small for his talents.

Indeed, it was far too small. Its size accounted for his obsession that its every detail, down to choice of roadside trees, fit with his plans or prejudices, as well as his eagerness to advise larger countries on how to run their affairs.

Because of his background and early life, he could operate and dominate in many different milieus, but was totally at home in none of them. That perhaps accounted for his ruthlessness. He had permanent interests, not permanent friends. In sum, always a leader rather than a fullower, he set his own agenda.

Kwa Geok Choo died in October 2010, and Lee is survived by their two sons and a daughter. Lee Hsien Loong continues to be Prime Minister; his brother, Lee Hsien Yang, is chairman of the civil aviation authority; and their sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, is director of the national neuroscience institute.

• Lee Kuan Yew, statesman, born 16 September 1923; died 23 March 2015

READ MORE on The Passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

The World will miss Lee Kuan Yew–A Tribute

By Henry A. Kissinger March 23 at 3:43 PM

Henry A. Kissinger was Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

lky-kissingerTwo Brilliant Global Strategists

Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.

Lee emerged onto the international stage as the founding father of the state of Singapore, then a city of about 1 million. He developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.

Fate initially seemed not to have provided him a canvas on which to achieve more than modest local success. In the first phase of decolonization, Singapore emerged as a part of Malaya. It was cut loose because of tensions between Singapore’s largely Chinese population and the Malay majority and, above all, to teach the fractious city a lesson of dependency. Malaya undoubtedly expected that reality would cure Singapore of its independent spirit.

But great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. Lee defied conventional wisdom by opting for statehood. The choice reflected a deep faith in the virtues of his people. He asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore and co-founder of the People’s Action Party, has died at age 91. Lee led Singapore’s rise from British tropical outpost to global trade and financial center. (Reuters)

A great leader takes his or her society from where it is to where it has never been — indeed, where it as yet cannot imagine being. By insisting on quality education, by suppressing corruption and by basing governance on merit, Lee and his colleagues raised the annual per capita income of their population from $500 at the time of independence in 1965 to roughly $55,000 today. In a generation, Singapore became an international financial center, the leading intellectual metropolis of Southeast Asia, the location of the region’s major hospitals and a favored site for conferences on international affairs. It did so by adhering to an extraordinary pragmatism: by opening careers to the best talents and encouraging them to adopt the best practices from all over the world.

Superior performance was one component of that achievement. Superior leadership was even more important. As the decades went by, it was moving — and inspirational — to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order. A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the Cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable U.S. contribution to the defense and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.

This process started for me when Lee visited Harvard in 1967 shortly after becoming prime minister of an independent Singapore. Lee began a meeting with the senior faculty of the School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School) by inviting comments on the Vietnam War. The faculty, of which I was one dissenting member, was divided primarily on the question of whether President Lyndon Johnson was a war criminal or a psychopath. Lee responded, “You make me sick” — not because he embraced war in a personal sense but because the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States. Singapore was not asking the United States to do something that Singapore would not undertake to the maximum of its ability. But U.S. leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.

Lee elaborated on these themes in the hundreds of encounters I had with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership. He understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability.

Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.

I began this eulogy by mentioning my friendship with Lee. He was not a man of many sentimental words. And he nearly always spoke of substantive matters. But one could sense his attachment. A conversation with Lee, whose life was devoted to service and who spent so much of his time on joint explorations, was a vote of confidence that sustained one’s sense of purpose.

The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication. Through all that time, Lee sat by her bedside in the evening reading to her. He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yew’s role in his era. He had the same hope for our world. He fought for its better instincts even when the evidence was ambiguous. But many of us heard him and will never forget him.

The Legacy of PAS’ Spiritual Leader Nik Aziz–ANALYSIS

February 13, 2015


The Passing of Nik Aziz Nik Mat: The Legacy of PAS’ Spiritual Leader-ANALYSIS

The passing of Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the late Spiritual Leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS, has left an enormous void in the party and the political landscape of Malaysia. Though his religious educational background was traditional and conservative, he was one of the more pragmatic and realistic leaders of the party, who transformed PAS into what it is today.

By Farish A. Noor*

nik-aziz2TUAN GURU Nik Aziz Nik Mat was one of the most well-known and familiar political-religious leaders in Malaysia, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was known throughout the country.

His popularity began to rise from the 1980s when he, along with a number of religious scholars (Ulama) took over the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS after deposing its leader Asri Muda. Thus began the rise of the ‘Ulama faction’ and the re-orientation of the party in the direction of political Islam in step with the global emergence of Islamism from the 1980s to the late 1990s.

In Malaysia today he was also known as the Murshid’ul Am or Spiritual Leader of PAS and the one who was most supportive of the reformist-modernist wing within the party, sometimes referred to as the ‘Erdogan faction’. The question arises as to how and why a traditional and conservative religious scholar such as Nik Aziz could have lent his support to the party’s moderate-reformist wing, who in turn brought the party into the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim. To understand the rationale behind Nik Aziz’s thinking, it is important to revisit the man’s past and consider his early religious education abroad, and his experiences in Malaysia and overseas.

Product of madrasah education

Nik Aziz ( pic center) first attended madrasahs (religious schools) in Malaysia, but Young Nik Azizwas then sent to India to further his studies. In India, he studied at the Darul Uloom madrasah of Deoband, Uttar Pradesh and it was there that he was first exposed to currents of religio-political thought in the Indian subcontinent. After graduating from Deoband in 1957, he proceeded to Lahore, Pakistan where he studied Tafsir (Quranic exegesis), and then to Egypt where he studied Fiqh (religious jurisprudence) at the well-known al-Azhar university in Cairo.

It has to be noted that in India, Pakistan and Egypt Nik Aziz did not merely study religious subjects but was also exposed to the currents of political Islam of the time: The 1950s and 1960s were the decades where political Islam was on the rise, with prominent Muslim scholar-activists such as Syed Abul Alaa Maudoodi, Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna becoming better known. In the course of several interviews that I had conducted with him, Nik Aziz admitted that he was less inclined towards the more poetic and/or spiritual variants of Islam that were found in India: On one occasion he was invited to perform a religious missionary tour with the spiritually-inclined Tablighi Jama’at movement in India, but declined on the grounds that he found their practice of Islam ‘world-denying and life-negating’.

Nik Aziz also spoke fondly of his time in Egypt, where he professed an admiration for the nationalist project of Gamal Abdel Nasser who had tried to modernise the country and who was seen as one of the leaders of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement. It was during this period – until his return to Malaysia in 1962 – that Nik Aziz developed his own approach to political Islam.

Alliance of Islamists and professionals

Nik Aziz’s educational background was traditional and conservative, and in many of the religious schools he studied, the teaching was based on the standard Dars-I Nizami curriculum that was introduced in the 11th century. Yet notwithstanding his conservative leanings, his personal experience of living in India, Pakistan and Egypt in the 1950s and early 1960s exposed him to contemporary currents of Muslim activism that later inspired and shaped his own political approach.

After taking over the Islamist party PAS in 1982, he, along with other Islamist-activist leaders like Yusof Rawa, began the internal transformation of the party and actively courted the membership and support of young Muslim professionals and technocrats into PAS.

It was from the 1980s that PAS became a truly modern organisation with strong mobilisation and communications capabilities, as a result of the alliance between the Ulama and professionals that Nik Aziz and Yusof Rawa promoted. Nik Aziz understood the need for a new kind of leadership and membership for the party that would allow it to mobilise faster and respond better to both domestic and international challenges.

The younger generation of professionals on the other hand valued the religious knowledge and moral credibility of men like Nik Aziz as they rejected the capital-driven developmental model they saw in Malaysia and other parts of the post-colonial world.

Nik Aziz’s passing thus leaves behind an enormous void in the leadership of PAS, and raises questions about where the party might head in the near future. But in recounting his personal history, it is instructive to note that even conservative-traditionalist scholars like him were able to appreciate the importance of networks and pragmatic coalitions as part of political praxis.

*Farish A. Noor is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and author of The Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951-2013, Amsterdam University Press, 2014.

RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries.

The Attraction-Revulsion Syndrome of Nik Aziz

February 13, 2015

The Attraction-Revulsion Syndrome of Nik Aziz

by Terence

COMMENT: During much of his 23-year tenure as Kelantan Menteri Besar, the late Nik Aziz Nik Mat exerted a simultaneous attraction-repulsion spell on non-Muslims: they found attractive the purity of his religious belief but were discomfited by aspects of its literalism.

Nik Aziz Nik Mat

Non-Muslims struggled to come to terms with the polarities of a persona they found engaging at most times and estranging at others. Prior to Niz Aziz’s emergence as a national political figure in the 1990s there was virtually no leader of the Islamist party with appeal across sectarian lines.

Burhanudin al-Helmy, President of the party from the mid-1950s to his death in 1967, did appeal to non-Muslims but that was because he had been associated with the multi-racial left wing cohort of the nationalist movement before and after the Second World War.

Hassan Adli, a PAS leader in Perak and near the top tier of his party’s hierarchy in the 1960s, was manifestly appealing to non-Muslims but did not endure long in the game, having met with an untimely death.

Ustaz Fadzil Noor

Not until Fadzil Noor (PAS President 1989-2002, above) who took over from Yusof Rawa had a PAS bigwig been able to breach the Muslim/non-Muslim divide and that, too, because Fadzil allowed his affection for a physically abused and humiliated Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 to prompt him to head Gerak, the multi-denominational NGO formed to protest the abuse of human rights mirrored in the sacked Deputy Prime Minister’s appalling treatment.

After Fadzil blazed the path, Nik Aziz steadily assumed centre stage as the PAS leader in possession of a magnetism that drew even non-Muslims into its orbit. The exemplary simplicity of his lifestyle as Menteri Besar (1990-2013) and resolute indifference to the material trappings of power shone like a beacon at a time when lengthy tenures in the upper tier of our political power pyramid invariably meant the occupant waxed with wealth.

That Nik Aziz was not materially acquisitive in an age rife with leaders grown florid on the perquisites of power was more than a display of spartan simplicity; it sustained the ideal of incorruptible governance at a time when power was synonymous with wealth.

Pause to evaluate Najib Abdul Razak’s reference to “family inheritance” as explanation to a query by the New York Times on the Prime Minister’s wealth.

From that standpoint, Pakatan was glad to have in Nik Aziz an indisputable exemplar of probity and morality. Pakatan supporters hailed Nik Aziz’s resolute opposition to a section of his party’s desire for a ‘unity government’ with UMNO in the aftermath of ruling party’s loss of its two-third majority in Parliament in the seminal March 2008 general election.

That opposition put paid to hopes of a unity government and allowed Malaysians the space to observe what a DAP-led Pakatan Rakyat government under Lim Guan Eng could do in Penang, the kinetic, albeit short span of a PAS-led government under Nizar Jamaluddin in Perak, and the financially well-managed tenure of Khalid Ibrahim in a PKR-led Pakatan administration in Selangor.

Breaching a psychological barrier

By thwarting the unity move, Nik Aziz allowed space and time for Pakatan to breach a psychological barrier among Malaysian voters – that the opposition in Malaysia are doomed to be backbenchers and not governors.

That and the panache of his visit to Penang during Thaipusam in early 2013 in the midst of public foreboding and tension caused by PERKASA Chief Ibrahim Ali’s threat to burn Malay language Bibles over the use of the ‘Allah’ term raised Nik Aziz to the pantheon of national leaders intent on transcending divisions than solidifying them.

The not so elevating aspects of Nik Aziz’s  persona was his scriptural literalness that saw him dismiss the Muslim organiser and participants of a dog show as people with “worms in their heads”.

Ailing for several years, his death yesterday comes at time when Pakatan is without its most recognisable leader, Anwar Ibrahim, now serving out a tendentious jail term, and just when PAS is intent on introducing the Islamic penal code (hudud), in Kelantan, which Nik Aziz would have ardently supported, to the dismay of his non-Muslim admirers.

This attraction-aversion syndrome which characterised the Nik Aziz phenomenon is set to define PAS politics in the foreseeable future awhile skewering the Pakatan position to the point of incoherence.

It’s enough to drive one to distraction until you consider what the alternative is – interminable rule by an UMNO-BN so decayed that the rising clamour to replace Najib as Prime Minster instantaneously elicits the expression “By whom?”


The Passing of Nik Aziz, the Spiritual Leader of PAS

February 13, 2015

The Passing of Nik Aziz, the Spiritual Leader of PAS: Obituary –The Malaysian Insider

“His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, this was a Man!”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Nik Aziz with AnwarPAS’ Nik Aziz Nik Mat

Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat’s death marks the loss of one of PAS’s most iconic and influential leaders – he was a cleric who has helped shape the course of the Islamist party for over three decades, and was a politician so unlike any other politician the country has seen.

Throughout his lifetime, Nik Aziz always struck a humble figure. Despite having the most powerful position in a party that boasted about one million members, and retaining the Kelantan menteri besar post for over two decades, the religious teacher was content staying in his old kampong house and driving around in his own car.

His gentle, subdued manner belied his fiery, bordering on zealous, determination to turn Kelantan into the first state in Malaysia to implement the controversial Shariah criminal law, as well as his instrumental role in overthrowing a former PAS President and turning the party around.

Even as his health deteriorated during his last months, the PAS spiritual adviser did not neglect his party during the recent Pengkalan Kubor by-election in Kelantan, and turned up at a PAS ceramah to deliver a brief but rousing speech.

Born on January 10, 1931 in Pulau Melaka, Kota Baru, Nik Aziz began his studies in pondok schools under the guidance of religious teachers around Kelantan and Terengganu before pursuing his tertiary education in Islamic University Darul Uloom Deoband, in India.

He obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Arabic Studies and Master of Arts in Islamic Jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University, Egypt. He returned to Malaysia in 1962 and served as a religious teacher in Kelantan, earning him the popular nickname “Tok Guru”.

Five years later, Nik Aziz joined PAS and won the Kelantan Hilir parliamentary seat in a by-election that same year, a seat that he held until 1986.

He witnessed the transition PAS underwent under the leftist pan-Islamism leadership of Burhanuddin al Helmy, to the Malay nationalist-leadership of Asri Muda, who took over the presidency in 1970 and nearly dragged the party to its early demise.

Asri’s most controversial decision was to announce PAS’s alliance with UMNO and its entry into the ruling coalition in 1972, ostensibly to strengthen Malay unity. But the move was doomed from the beginning, as many members and leaders unhappy with the decision either left or were purged from the party.

But the PAS-UMNO partnership was short lived: a disagreement between the two parties over the Kelantan Menteri Besar post saw PAS exit the alliance just five years later, and Kelantan, PAS’s long-treasured jewel, fell to Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 1978 general election. Nik Aziz was appointed Kelantan state commissioner immediately after PAS lost the state to UMNO.

It was Nik Aziz’s bitter, first-hand experience dealing with the fallout between UMNO and PAS that has kept the two parties from venturing into another alliance decades later, despite fringe voices urging for a unity government.

Nik Aziz and the new generation of leaders, did not stand idly by as Asri led the party to one of its worst electoral losses in history; he, Abdul Hadi Awang and the other clerics in the party sought to reorient PAS as an Islamic party led by the ulama faction.

Asri was ultimately pressured to resign from the party, and in 1990, under the leadership of former PAS President Datuk Fadzil Noor, the party wrested back Kelantan and Nik Aziz was appointed Menteri Besar. A year later, he succeeded former PAS President Yusof Rawa as the party’s spiritual advisor after the former passed away.

Nik Aziz held the position of Menteri Besar until May 6, 2013, a day after the 13th general election concluded. Throughout his 23 uninterrupted years of service, Kelantan remained a PAS stronghold even as Perak, Terengganu and Kedah fell to BN after they were briefly captured by the party.

No other PAS leader could boast being a Menteri Besar for such a long period of time; PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang was the Terengganu Menteri Besar for only one term, before losing the state to Barisan Nasional in the 2004 general election.

After relinquishing his Menteri Besar post, Nik Aziz continued to play an important role in both PAS and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) as the party’s spiritual adviser.

During the Selangor Menteri Besar crisis last year, which saw PAS threatening to break away from PR, Nik Aziz put his foot down and maintained that the party would remain with the opposition pact, even as other PAS leaders floated the idea of cooperating with UMNO.

But now with his passing, the future of PAS and its role in PR is no longer so certain, and with it, the possibility of an alternative coalition to take over Putrajaya. – February 12, 2015.