“Merdeka Malaysia!” proclaimed Lee Kuan Yew upon the formation of a new country called Malaysia on 16 September 1963. “As from today,” he declared, “Singapore shall forever be a part of the sovereign democratic and independent State of Malaysia.” The streets of the island state of which he was Chief Minister were bedecked with bunting, flags and bright messages expressing a simple but bold hope: “Majulah Malaysia”.
Just shy of two years later that settlement had ended. Tearfully, as an expelled constituent state of a federation became a sovereign nation, Mr Lee explained: “The whole of my adult life I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. We, as a people, are connected by geography, economics and ties of kinship.”
Political controversy and sensitivity then and since has prevented future generations of Singaporeans and Malaysians from properly revisiting this episode: Was Lee Kuan Yew seriously hoping to be Prime Minister of Malaysia? Did Tunku Abdul Rahman plan on kicking Singapore out from the beginning, using Singapore to temporarily counterbalance the accession of North Borneo and Sarawak to the Malaysia Agreement – or did he do his level best to ensure the continuation of merger, being defeated by detractors in his own party?
Malaysians of my generation are more likely to have encountered discussion on the Malaysia Agreement only recently, in respect of issues of states’ rights in Sabah and Sarawak – “secession” and “sedition” completing the sibling sibilance. The notion of another merger with Singapore has been portrayed in popular culture as far-fetched: Lat’s cartoon depicting Malaysian chewing gum manufacturers horrified by the prospect, or Harith Iskander’s enactments of distinctive habits bordered by the Causeway. But these friendly jibes and putdowns, the debates about the origins/name/taste of food items and the denunciation of incompetent drivers – all of these were given substance not merely by the act of separation but by the ensuing political, economic and social journeys. In Malaysia, the narrative has been shaped by six Prime Ministers, each given an epithet to mark their particular contributions to the country. In Singapore, the narrative was written, and then guided, and then constrained, by one Prime Minister, the Father of Singapore.
There is no need here to detail his vision or methods. He was politically and socially authoritarian, while competition and meritocracy were embedded in his version of state capitalism; he was utterly committed in his beliefs and objectives as others, especially his critics, would crushingly discover; and he was unapologetic to his last breath about all that he did. There are few leaders in history in whom such resoluteness of vision has been combined with its relentless pursuit, buttressed by a mandate judged sufficiently democratic for the region, augmented by genuine international respect. We see the results with grudging admiration, yet Singaporeans pre-empt perceived jeers with self-deprecation – “How are the trees so straight?” I asked as the Second Link became the AYE. “They are hardwired to Lee Kuan Yew.”
Singapore will probably not see such a leader again, not just because such individuals are rarely born and allowed to ascend the political ladder unhindered – but also because its own people won’t let one survive. The children of the middle-class that Mr Lee designed will not abide the same authoritarianism as their parents did. Still, it is not merely the clamour for political and social liberalism that Mr Lee’s successors have to deal with: thriving in the reified middle class is more difficult than being a founding member. Class consciousness and ambition has elevated the “Five Cs” into a doctrine at a time when “expatriates” and “foreign workers” crowd both the physical and ideological constraints of the island.
I used to work in Singapore, doing a Research Fellowship at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore – housed in a building that was once the core of the University of Malaya, in which so many future Malaysian leaders were educated. My time there too was enlightening. As I familiarised myself with life in Singapore, its institutions, its idiosyncrasies, its strange patriotism that encouraged the continued adulation of officers of the British Empire, I came to understand the game-plan of a man who essentially had the luxury of playing a real-life scenario of Civilisation from start to finish. He played it brilliantly with unparalleled dedication.
Recently, an outgoing CEO of a major government-owned company recalled Lee Kuan Yew’s words when asked if he would consider Singapore re-joining Malaysia. “Only when Malaysia is better than Singapore,” he replied. This infuriated CEO was motivated to ensure his company surpassed comparable Singaporean ones, and succeeded.
May Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy inspire generations of Malaysians to come. Majulah Malaysia!
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS