I have read for many years about Tun Dr. Mahathir’s deep resentment and suspicion against Singapore. From his writings in The Early Years to his occasional jibes against the 'little red dot' after stepping down as Malaysia's prime minister in 2003, Dr. Mahathir's feelings towards Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew are clear and obvious. His recent blog post The Modern Middle Kingdom, is the latest evidence to this. Many may wonder from where did all these negative feelings and emotions come from? Allow me to offer some answers.
Dr. Mahathir obtained his medical degree in Singapore (the University of Malaya was then located there), and it was during his studies there he met his wife Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah. For most people, your alma mater and the place where you first met your wife would always have a special place in your heart. You would have fond memories of the place and would always want to visit it whenever you can. Well, Dr. Mahathir is not like most people. He is different!
When Dr. Mahathir was a university student in Singapore, he regularly contributed articles to the Straits Times. Writing under his famous pen-name C.H.E. Det, he once wrote:
"Early in the modern history of Malaya, it was discovered that the Chinese were the most suitable people for the opening up of undeveloped areas, and it became the policy of the government, then centred in Singapore, to encourage Chinese immigration. Neither the government nor the increasing number of Chinese British subjects saw any reason to enforce severe restrictions on the quota. Thus, numerical superiority coupled with their native diligence and business drive born out of the hard life in China, proved beyond the capacity of the easy going Malays to compete. With the passing years they sank lower and lower until they now form the lowest stratum of Singapore’s society. And so in the island today the Malays, once the owners and rulers are to be found only in the poorer quarters living in dilapidated attap and plank huts, sometimes only a stone’s throw from the palatial residences of Chinese millionaires. The few Malays in the city live in the servants' quarters of Chinese and European houses."
(Excerpt from Dr. Mahathir’s article published on 9 April 1950. The full article plus others can be found in the book The Early Years.)
Dr. Mahathir obviously found it very annoying that the majority of Malays in Singapore were poor and uneducated, fit only to become common labourers and trishaw-pullers. It annoyed him further to see the Chinese as masters and the Malays their servants when historically the Malays are the natives of Singapore while the Chinese came to the island only because of the British.
Not surprisingly, when Lee Kuan Yew was at the height of his campaign for a 'Malaysian Malaysia', hence seen to question the provision on special Malay rights in the Federal Constitution during Singapore’s brief stint in Malaysia (from 16 September 1963 to 9 August 1965), speaking as a true Malay nationalist, Dr. Mahathir (then Member of Parliament of Kota Star) made the following stinging remark towards Lee in parliament:
"They (Singaporean Chinese) have never known Malay rule and cannot bear the idea that the people they have so long kept under their heels should now be in a position to rule them."
And Lee Kuan Yew responded with the following:
"Of course there are Chinese millionaires in big cars and big houses. Is it the answer to make a few Malay millionaires with big cars and big houses? ... If we delude people into believing that they are poor because there are no Malay rights or because opposition members oppose Malay rights, where are we going to end up? You let people in the villages believe that they are poor because we don't speak Malay, because the government does not write in Malay, so he expects a miracle to take place in 1967 (when Malay becomes the sole national language). The moment we all start speaking Malay, he is going to have an uplift in the standard of living, and if doesn't happen, what happens then? ... Meanwhile, whenever there is a failure of economic, social and educational policies, you come back and say, oh, these wicked Chinese, Indian and others opposing Malay rights. They don't oppose Malay rights. They, the Malay, have the right as Malaysian citizens to go up to the level of training and education that the more competitive societies, the non-Malay society, has produced. That is what must be done, isn't it? Not to feed them with this obscurantist doctrine that all they have got to do is to get Malay rights for the few special Malays and their problem has been resolved..."
(Excerpts from Dr. Mahathir's and Mr. Lee's speeches at the Malaysian Parliament on 25 May 1965, quoted in The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew)
In a speech he gave five days later in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew made further reference to Dr. Mahathir's remarks:
"You know what they said in Parliament, Dr. Mahathir from Kota Star? -- "We in Singapore are not accustomed to Malay rule. We are not like people in Kelantan and Terengganu." Well, let me tell him this: when we joined Malaysia, we never agreed to Malay rule; we agreed to Malaysian rule; never Malay rule. This is all bunkum. Somebody has made a grave error of judgment if they believe that we agreed to Malay rule. (We) never agreed to it."
(Excerpt from Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s speech on 30th May 1965. Click here to access the full text)
For Dr. Mahathir then, Lee Kuan Yew was nothing more than a Chinese snob who dared to question the fundamental belief that Malaysia is the motherland of only the Malays. The Malays therefore are the only rightful leaders of this country while others may acquire limited supporting roles. Indeed Dr. Mahathir once said in reference to Lee Kuan Yew's foray into Malaysian federal politics in 1965, as "the mad ambition of one man to see himself as the first Chinese Prime Minister of Malaysia." And, he described Lee’s political strategy as to "assume a brave front and dare everyone in the hope that it will overawe what it presumes to be the less clever and more timid groups into refusing to rise to the challenge." (quoted in Paradoxes of Mahathirism)
Needless to say, Dr. Mahathir was not one to be easily overawed and intimidated. And during his 22 years as Prime Minister of Malaysia, he was determined not to act in any way that may be perceived as if Malaysia was intimidated by its southern neighbour. He would condemn anyone from his administration whom in his opinion had done so, which explains why he was so livid with Abdullah Badawi for cancelling the 'crooked bridge' project because that to him was a clear indication that Malaysia was submitting meekly to Singapore's wishes. And I'm sure it must have angered Dr. Mahathir too to see the current Malay UMNO leaders acting like (as described by a colleague) a group of nervous students having a meeting with their school headmaster, when they met with Lee Kuan Yew during the latter's recent visit to Malaysia.
Having presented some of these political-historical background of Dr. Mahathir's resentment against Lee Kuan Yew, I do however believe at the core of all this, the uneasy relationship between these two iconic figures in history is due to their similar personalities. Both are strong leaders with almost absolute convictions on their own abilities and strengths. Both share the same leadership motive patterns of having high need for power and low need for affiliation. They care more about doing things they believe to be right; and have very little concern about whether they are popular and conventional.
Both however are genuinely sincere leaders. Their love and dedication for their respective countries can never be questioned.
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