Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, the candid leader

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, the candid leader

It was Lee Kuan Yew's first visit to Malaysia in 10 years. He wanted to see, as part of his official itinerary, the North-South Expressway, Putrajaya and the Petronas Twin Towers. And to listen to Malaysians.

That was in August 2000 when he was holding the position of Senior Minister, having handed over the premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990.

The then Singapore High Commissioner K. Kesavapany, who was born in Kuala Lumpur, had arranged a series of small meetings for him. I was chosen to meet the legendary founding father of Singapore with five other young newspaper editors.

We were all in our late 30s or early 40s and we were told that Lee wanted to exchange views with us on developments in Malaysia and Singapore.

The meeting took place at the Mandarin Oriental, in the suite where he was staying with his wife.

We were on time, of course, but the discussion, which was supposed to be over tea, was now running behind schedule as last-minute appointments were squeezed in.

All the journalists were meeting him for the first time.

We were well aware of his reputation for being intimidating and intellectually arrogant.

We had all heard enough stories of him expecting members of the media to be well prepared for any interview he granted.

He had instructed the High Commission in Kuala Lumpur to send him our resumes so he could study our backgrounds and experiences. So, one can understand the palpable tension in the air as we waited for him.

But he was pleasantly relaxed. It was his three aides who looked tense as they took down notes from our discussions.

I recall his opening remarks, which confirmed that he was a man who did not want to waste his time on unnecessary pleasantries.

"Young man, speak your mind. Tell me what you think. I am not a mind reader," he said, looking at me to start the discussions.

And the conversation flowed from there.

Taking bites at the sweet duku langsat on the table, he was attentive, stealing glances at his aides, but as we took turns to ask him questions and also to offer our views when he asked for them, he became more relaxed.

He was courteous and even apologetic at times during the off-the record talk where both sides challenged the views of each other.

It was clear that Kuala Lumpur's changing skyline, well-connected highways and even the thorny bilateral issues weren't the only things on the elder statesman's mind.

The issues dividing Malaysia and Singapore included Malaysia's supply of water to Singapore, the relocation of Customs and Immigration facilities for Malaysian rail passengers in Singapore and the withdrawal of Malaysian funds from the island republic's pension scheme.

There were tough issues from his time as Prime Minister which his successor had to deal with.

But it was clear that he was very much in the picture even if he was no longer in the driving seat.

After all, Lee remains the only Singapore leader who has personally known all our Malaysian Prime Ministers - from Tunku Abdul Rahman to Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. He was clear on how his peers built up Malaysia, even as he had his own vision for Singapore and the historical linkages between the two neighbours.

Despite public perception of hostility between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Lee, the latter reportedly said that during the 1970s - when he knew Dr Mahathir was going to be Prime Minister - he invited him to Singapore on several occasions and the two established a personal relationship.

Lee said there was an emotional bond because Dr Mahathir had studied in Singapore and regularly returned for university reunions.

In the case of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, he was certainly no stranger to Lee after having served in the Cabinet for so many years, including as Foreign Minister.

But there were two issues that nagged him during our meeting - Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and PAS.

He made no secret of his concerns that the young Malays were drawn to the religious struggles of PAS.

It disturbed him that the Islamist party was becoming a serious player in the political landscape with only moderate Muslims and non-Muslims keeping them from becoming more influential.

In an interview with the New Straits Times just before his trip to Kuala Lumpur, he took a jibe at PAS.

"I'm surprised you have a lady photographer. (Laughter). I thought PAS would object," he was quoted as saying.

The growing influence of PAS and the controversial issues with regards to race and religion may have been a Malaysian problem, but it was also a cause of concern to the predominantly Chinese population of Singapore.

The current push by PAS for the implementation of hudud laws would have disturbed him greatly if he were able to keep track of ongoing developments in his last days.

He would have been shocked to learn that Umno representatives in the Kelantan State Assembly actually voted for the hudud enactment.

"I would sleep more comfortably with Umno in power as it is a party I have known since the 1940s," he told a press conference later at the end of his visit.

Anwar's jail sentence and whether he still had a future in politics dominated the discussions.

It was clear that the street demonstrations by Anwar and his supporters troubled him.

He was perhaps worried about the possible impact on Singapore's politics due to such forms of protest.

Lee said he felt sorry for Dr Mahathir for paying a "very heavy price" in the sacking of Anwar and the subsequent events.

One fellow journalist recalled that Lee "almost fell out of his chair" when he told him that many Malaysians were unhappy with the outcome of the trial and the jail sentence.

"He questioned why young Malaysians should be unhappy when the entire procedure of the law had been properly carried out," said this journalist.

Apart from us in the media, Lee's private appointments included various think-tanks. These meetings would have allowed Lee to have a better understanding of events that affected both nations.

It was also clear that he wanted to hear the views and aspirations of the younger generation from the various influential sectors because the destiny of his country would no longer be premised on the shared experiences of the older leaders.

The younger citizens, whether in Singapore or Malaysia, no longer feel the need to be grateful to the government for providing jobs, houses and basic amenities. That is the job of any government, nothing more.

His immediate successor Goh Chok Tong and now Lee's son, Hsien Loong, have all learnt that the high quality of living that the PAP government has provided under the elder Lee is a given, and nothing to score political points with.

Winning the hearts and minds of the young Singaporeans required a different approach, as can be seen by the number of opposition MPs in Singapore which has increased over the past two elections.

Kuan Yew had by then realised that his style of managing Singapore was over.

The world has changed. Singapore has changed and so has Malaysia. The days of a strong government in most democracies, governing with a sizeable majority, were also over.

Both Najib and Hsien Loong have to deal with a different generation of demanding citizens with little sense of their respective country's traumatic history. Nor do they care about the early struggling years of nationhood.

Instead, they expect their leaders to allow them greater democratic space, be more accountable and, at the same time, maintain a decent economic growth rate.

In the case of Malaysia, where the issues are more complex, material development alone may not be enough.

Malaysia and Singapore may be different entities, but we are mirror images of each other in many aspects, as Lee repeatedly mentioned.

And the man who looked into that mirror the most, has now passed on.

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