KUALA LUMPUR - Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said Friday he was "saddened" by the death of Singapore's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, despite their often strained relationship, adding that Southeast Asia had lost a strong leader.
"I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise," Mahathir, 89, wrote on his blog. "No matter how friendly or unfriendly we are, the passing away of a man you know well saddens you.
"(The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) lost a strong leadership after president Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew," he added, referring to the former Indonesian leader who died in 2008.
The three contemporaries were robust leaders who played vital roles in steering their nations from post-colonial uncertainty to economic success.
"Now Kuan Yew is no more. His passage marks the end of the period when those who fought for independence led their countries and knew the value of independence," Mahathir wrote.
Lee died on Monday aged 91 after half a century in government, during which the city-state was transformed from a poor British colonial outpost into one of the world's richest societies.
Malaysia-Singapore ties have been testy for much of their history after Lee led his nation to independence in 1965 following a brief and stormy union with Malaysia.
The federation broke up amid race riots pitting Malays against Chinese, who made up Singapore's majority group.
The relationship between Mahathir, a Malay, and the ethnic Chinese Lee mirrored this tension, with each of them occasionally lobbing criticisms at each others' nation.
But in his blog posting, Mahathir, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 and still exerts political influence, recounts first meeting Lee in 1964 when Singapore was still part of Malaysia.
He said they disagreed on "most" issues, but that each of them reached out when the other suffered health problems.