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Lee Kuan Yew, the man who made modern Singapore in his image and became known as “the sage of the east” who was venerated the world over, has died.
As history now tells us, Kuan Yew was an indomitable figure in a chaotic post-colonial Southeast Asia who had a laser-like focus on what he wanted out of his tiny country, and also on how he would like to deal with his often-hostile neighbours of Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the world beyond.
Calling Kuan Yew multifaceted would be an understatement: he almost single-handedly rallied his political lieutenants in his People’s Action Party to collaborate with and then betray the communists in Singapore, fought for a merger with the territories of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia only to see Singapore unceremoniously kicked out, turned a slum-like city into a gleaming metropolis with one of the world’s highest per capita GDP (gross domestic product), micro-managed his citizen’s public and private behaviour, preached “Asian values” and much more.
Of course, he was given many monikers in his lifetime – the best bloody Englishman east of the Suez, Chinese chauvinist, street fighter, nanny of a nanny state, benevolent dictator, elder statesman, and the sage of the East.
But what was he to me, an ordinary young Malaysian who was born in 1980s and grew up under the administration of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad? Why does Kuan Yew even matter to me as a non-Singaporean, and matter enough for me to pen my thoughts here?
In fact, Kuan Yew matters greatly for myself and my country because he was very much part of Malaysia and Malaysian history, out of which the modern Republic of Singapore came into being. Kuan Yew was not only a historical figure in Malaysian history, but one of the founding fathers of Malaysia itself. It was Kuan Yew who first raised the idea of Malaysia to the reluctant then-prime minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and through his superlative powers of co-option and persuasion, the Tunku and the leaders of Sabah and Sarawak agreed with Kuan Yew, and the rest of history.
Even after separation, the push and pull of Kuan Yew never waned in Malaysia, and multitudes of citizens are still inspired by his vision of a meritocratic and multiracial Malaysian Malaysia, while others loathe his attacks on Malay and indigenous Bumiputera privileges as prescribed under the Federal Constitution.
But even more than that, Kuan Yew’s presence never waned in the coffee shops, warung or roadside eateries and the market places where the ordinary folk of Malaysia who were once part of his Malaysia dream would gather. Even after 50 years of separation, Kuan Yew and his Malaysian Malaysia ideals are still being talked about and argued against in public places, including in national politics.
The cosmopolitan gleam of the economic miracle of Singapore, a result of Kuan Yew’s unrelenting determination to prove that he and his country would succeed in spite of having been forced out of Malaysia, will always cast a shadow on the country he left behind. He took a lonely road out of Malaysia, and his steely determination and success as a statesman have come back to haunt Malaysia ever since.
Since separation, generations of Malaysians have made their way to prosperous Singapore to attend its universities whose meritocratic admission policies are a contrast to the race-based quota system for university enrolment back home. Hundreds of thousands more decided to immigrate to Singapore to gain higher paying employment.
Malaysia and Singapore, which had always been close as a result of their common British colonial heritage, had their ties strengthened further with the post-separation influx of Malaysians into Singapore. So many Malaysian families have relatives or friends working or living in Singapore that Singapore, and by extension Kuan Yew, have entered into the popular consciousness of Malaysia, or even their living rooms in the forms of chatter on the happenings in Singapore through updates from Malaysians living in Singapore who were returning for the holidays, through political manipulation of Kuan Yew’s image in Malaysia, through a hopeless longing of what the future could have been with Kuan Yew and Singapore still in Malaysia.
Indeed, Singapore and by extension, Kuan Yew, have become so ubiquitous, omnipresent, even suffocating (“Send your sons and daughters to Singapore! Education is good, salaries are good!”, say the returning relatives) among the ordinary folk, particularly the middle-class Chinese Malaysians. That was the cultural milieu I grew up in, as a middle-class Chinese Malaysian kid growing up in the suburbs of Subang Jaya, Selangor.
And yet, Malaysians have also heard of Kuan Yew’s excesses. The graduate mothers’ scheme, the ban on chewing gum, the draconian punishments on minor infractions like littering or jaywalking, the promotion on Chinese language and culture to the exclusion of minority Indian, Malay and other ethnicities. Disneyland with the death penalty. The “Fine” City. The crackdowns on the Catholic social workers, the long imprisonment of political detainees such as Chia Thye Poh who was in jail for more than 30 years. The defamation litigations against opposition politicians which often bankrupted them.
And yet, Malaysians often brushed off these alleged excesses in praise of Singapore’s efficiency and wealth. Furthermore, Malaysians themselves know of similar anti-democratic restrictions of freedom in their own country, coupled with greater socio-economic inequality and interethnic friction. After all, Malaysia and Singapore, as different as they are in ethnic composition and culture, were and still are in reality similar semi-democratic, developmental states.
Singapore, and of course by extension, Kuan Yew, will always be the shining beacon of what Malaysia could have been, or so Malaysians like to say.
Singapore and Kuan Yew, with his single-minded ruthlessness in pursuit of economic growth and prosperity, have affected Malaysia in many ways, down to the personal and familial levels.
And yet, with better education among the younger generation in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia, people are starting to see beyond economics and money. People want to have a say in their own destiny and be heard by their leaders. The youths who are often fighting for an existence which may be worse off than their parents’ in the midst of global recessions, religious conflicts and structural economic changes due to technological innovation which may result in massive loss of jobs, are no longer content to go to a good university and get good jobs which are getting scarce anyway. They want something more.
The era of strongmen in Asia is coming to an end as we are already halfway into the second decade of the 21st century. Strongmen like Suharto, Dr Mahathir, and of course Kuan Yew have come and gone. Spontaneous popular uprisings have occurred in Malaysia, Taiwan, and even usually docile Hong Kong. The once dictatorial South Korea has been a liberal democracy for nearly 3 decades now. The younger people no longer seem content to be told what to do, and are seeking ways to determine their own destiny.
Good bye, Kuan Yew. You have been an inspiration. With your passing, I feel that not only has an era passed in which you were one of its beacons, but I also feel that part of my own childhood and my growing-up years has gone with you.
Whatever your excesses may have been, you have achieved what almost no other statesman has achieved for the people of Singapore, for which prosperity, high levels of safety, good governance and an excellent education system are now considered to be societal norms. Indeed, your imposition of sheer will power onto Singapore and also the rest of the world without a care for your detractors is by itself an inspiration for me.
And now, you have moved on, and so we Malaysians will move on too.
Thank you for being a presence in my life, and my country will chart its own path, and hopefully be as single-minded in pursuit of our own happiness. – March 25, 2015.
* Raymond Woo is a management and public sector consultant.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.