First among equals

First among equals
JUNE 5, 1959: At the Cabinet's swearing-in ceremony at the City Council Hall were (from left) Messrs Yong Nyuk Lin, Ong Pang Boon, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Lee Kuan Yew, Ong Eng Guan, Ahmad Ibrahim, S. Rajaratnam and K.M. Byrne.

The midnight call from Mr S. Rajaratnam startled Mr Othman Wok. It was Aug 7, 1965.

"'We go to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow,' he said," Mr Othman recalls. "I asked him why. 'Have they arrested PM?' I said."

Mr Rajaratnam did not explain.

The two men were ministers in Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's Cabinet, and Singapore was then part of the 22-month-old federation of Malaysia.

Mr Othman's asking if Mr Lee had been detained reflected the tense atmosphere of the times; being summoned so suddenly to the Malaysian capital lent itself to gloomy and drastic interpretation.

Rumours that Mr Lee would be detained had circulated furiously for two years. A fundamental disagreement between him and Kuala Lumpur on the issue of race had raised temperatures close to boiling point.

The federal government had indeed drawn up a case, secretly, to have him arrested. Malay extremists had been clamouring publicly for his arrest, when they were not calling openly for him to be murdered.

Mr Othman and Mr Rajaratnam reached the Malaysian capital to find Mr Lee still a free man.

What he needed to see them about so urgently was Singapore's impending exit from Malaysia.

Today, the Lee Kuan Yew story is a tale of a man who led a tiny island nation from Third World to First.

But what narrative would have prevailed had he been locked up in the 1960s? A tragic hero cut down in his prime? A charismatic leader of great but unfulfilled promise?

In the event, he was not arrested, thanks in part to then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Through High Commissioner to Malaysia Anthony Head, Mr Wilson threatened that draconian action by Kuala Lumpur would trigger strong reaction from Britain and the Commonwealth.

"Wilson was a good friend," Mr Lee would say years later.

The escape from incarceration was not his first. Singapore Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock contemplated it before the 1959 elections when it appeared that Mr Lee's People's Action Party (PAP), then in the opposition, was on the brink of victory.

Mr Lee's pre-1965 years were a period marked by close shaves and striking the finest of balance between forces he found himself up against - the Japanese, the British, leftists and communalists.

His generation lived through a world war followed by fierce power struggles as the British gradually withdrew as colonial masters.

Those early experiences go some way towards explaining Mr Lee's character, his outlook and ideology and his policy choices later on.

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