The recent death of Lee Kuan Yew has seen an outpouring of tributes from all over the world. Among those who have commented on his demise has been Dr. Mahathir who expressed his sadness in a post in his blogsite. After describing their relationship, towards the end of his article, he wrote
“Now Kuan Yew is no more. His passage marks the enad of the period when those who fought for independence led their countries and knew the value of independence. Asean lost a strong leadership (sic) after President Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew,”
Most Malaysians will disagree with Dr. Mahathir. In fact, Kuan Yew was much more than a Singapore and Asean leader. He was a world leader whose advice was sought after by countries such as the United States, China, Japan, Britain, Australia and various European countries, besides the countries in Asia which have been influenced by Singapore’s model of development.
On 24 March, The Japan Times, one of the leading newspapers in that country, front paged tributes to him from Japanese leaders. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called him “one of the greatest leaders of modern times that Asia has produced”. His official statement also noted “how much I was impressed by his profound wisdom, including when I met him in 2014”. Further, page 6 of the same paper carried a lengthy piece on Kuan Yew’s impact on China with the heading “Lee inspired Beijing to modernize. China saw blueprint in Singapore founder’s leadership model.”
On the same day, the International New York Times, formerly the International Herald Tribune, one of the most influential international English language newspapers, also carried a lengthy front page tribute which noted that the nation [Singapore] reflected the man: “efficient, unsentimental, incorrupt, inventive, forward looking and pragmatic”.
When we compare this global respect and appreciation of Lee Kuan Yew and the city state of Singapore (President Clinton was among the many world leaders who attended his funeral) with many of the opinions in Malaysia (and perhaps Indonesia), our hostility and lack of respect accorded to both leader and nation stand out. Yet it should not be the case. Let not the green eyed monster of jealousy and envy overcome our good sense.
That “little red dot” is a good model to emulate not just because it has done so well on most fronts – economic, social, cultural and religious. Its GDP amounts to slightly less than Malaysia’s – US$276,520 million compared with ours of US$303,527 million although its population of 6.9 million is much smaller than ours at 29.6 million (IMF 2012 estimates). Its educational standards are among the highest in the world. Its public housing programme is the envy of developed countries such as the United States. Its public infrastructure can hold its own against the best anywhere.
We can and should learn from its successes not only because it is right next to us and was formerly part of Malaysia. We should do so because our economies are interdependent with millions of Malaysians directly or indirectly working or doing business with Singapore and vice versa. We should do so also because family ties bind millions of Malaysians and Singaporeans together – one may want to beggar one’s neighbour perhaps but one’s own relative?
In a real sense thus, Singapore’s prosperity is also ours. There is no more clear example than what is taking place in the Iskandar project which is intended to act as a catalytic development force for the south. The progress and standards of living of the more than 3 million Malaysians in that part depend on how we are able to work with our Singaporean (and other foreign) partners.
As we know Singapore is buying sand as far away as Cambodia for land reclamation. If we could sell the sand dredged from Kelantan River to Singapore, we could have mitigated the annual flooding there and saved hundreds of million ringgit to help the flood victims. It was Dr Mahathir who stopped the selling of sand to Singapore.
Our time to achieve VISION 2020 is running out soon. Unless our political leaders change their mindset, we will not become a developed nation.
A final word of advice to Malaysian leaders and ex-leaders: be respectful especially to our neighbours; applaud their achievements and please do not use them as a punching bag and diversion for our own inability to progress and for our failure to improve our economy and society. They should especially not try to make racist and xenophobic capital from “the little red dot” by resorting to crude means in whatever political wayang that they may be engaged in.