Malaysia Remembers Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

150323-leekuanyew-620 Singaporeans pay their respects to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, March 23, 2015. [AFP]

Malaysian leaders on Monday paid homage to Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of neighboring Singapore, the city-state on the Strait of Johor which he governed autocratically and transformed into one of Asia’s Tiger economies after its traumatic split from Malaysia 50 years ago.

Lee, who governed Singapore from 1959 to 1990, died early Monday at age 91.

Prime Minister Nazib Razak said the news saddened him.

“I pay tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's determination in developing Singapore from a new nation to the modern and dynamic city we see today," Bernama quoted him as saying.

“His achievements were great, and his legacy is assured,” Najib said in a message posted on Facebook earlier.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail of the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR) recalled how Lee transformed the 269-square-mile island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula with no natural resources into one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

“As the founder and first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew initiated developmental policies that were transparent and efficient, and was successful at attracting foreign investors to the point that his country was dubbed the ‘Swiss of Asia’,” she said, according to Malay Mail Online.

Formative years

Under Lee, relations between Malaysia and Singapore often were testy. He frequently clashed with Malaysia’s founding prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, as well as Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, the Straits Times noted.

Singapore was part of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, when Tunku expelled Singapore from the Malaysian Federation because of political rivalries and simmering ethnic tensions.

That shared chapter in the founding history of the two nations was seminal for Lee, according to Singaporean Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo.

“The Malaysian years were part of his formation as a political leader. I think those were very difficult years. He did what he could within what was possible. In the end, he failed. Singapore had to leave Malaysia,” Yeo told Channel News Asia in an interview.

Yeo recalled how, in a meeting after the separation, Lee spoke with great solicitousness to Tunku.

“In that final encounter, I saw he had deep respect for him, and that earlier relationship of a young man and older leader continued to be part of him. He needed not, at that point in his life, show respect to Tunku. But he did.”

‘He brooked no dissent’

Local papers recalled Lee’s legacy as an iron-fisted leader who exerted strict controls over the press, public assembly and political opponents.

“The world can finally judge Lee Kuan Yew and determine if Singapore’s glittering skyscrapers were worth the price of democracy and chewing gum, although he wouldn’t have cared for such assessments anyway as it was he, and only he, who decided what was right for Singapore,” said an obituary in The Malay Mail Online.

“At the helm of a nation-state in its infancy, Lee built Singapore after his own image – stern, disciplined and no-nonsense. He brooked no dissent and did not tolerate corruption. He focused on running an efficient, pragmatic and meritocratic administration.”

With Lee’s passing, Singapore could now perhaps achieve political liberalization to match its economic stature, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Lee Kuan Yew’s tremendous role in Singapore’s economic development is beyond doubt, but it also came at a significant cost for human rights – and today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multi-party democracy is also a part of his legacy that Singapore now needs to overcome,” Roberston said.

By BenarNews staff with details from news reports.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.