Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Not close friends, but I still feel sad at Mr Lee Kuan Yew's passing, says Mahathir

Malaysia's combative former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed sadness over the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew even as he admitted that they were not close friends.

"No matter how friendly or unfriendly we are, the passing away of a man you know well saddens you. I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise," Dr Mahathir wrote on his personal blog.

Dr Mahathir became his country's fourth prime minister in 1981. He and Mr Lee were counterparts until Mr Lee stepped down in 1990, while Dr Mahathir continued in office until 2003.

The Malaysian leader, who is still influential in his country, said Mr Lee's death marked the end of an era of strong leaders. "Now Kuan Yew is no more. His passage marks the end of the period when those who fought for independence led their countries and knew the value of independence. Asean lost strong leadership after President Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew."

He said he "crossed swords" many times with Mr Lee after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963, but "there was no enmity".

"I first met Kuan Yew when I was a member of Parliament in 1964 after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963. We crossed swords many times during the debates. But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation," Dr Mahathir said.

"He included me among the ultra Malays who were responsible for the racial riots in Singapore. Actually, I never went to Singapore to stir up trouble. Somebody else whom I would not name did."

Dr Mahathir paid a courtesy call on Mr Lee when he became prime minister in 1981 and both agreed their countries should advance their clocks by half an hour.

"I am afraid on most other issues, we could not agree." 

Strong personalities both, they often did not see eye to eye on bilateral issues. The water agreement, for instance, led to numerous verbal clashes.

Dr Mahathir once slammed Mr Lee as a "Chinese emperor" and "big frog in a small pond" who harboured ambitions of becoming the first Chinese Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Former Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia,  Mr K. Kesavapany, said Dr Mahathir's tribute was not surprising.

"Leaders have to maintain a public persona, but at the same time their private position would be different.  They both in a sense admired each other, but the national position of both countries turned them into adversaries."

Mr Kesavapany  described the relationship between the two leaders as like "iron is turned into steel when there is fire".

Despite the public hostility, Dr Mahathir seemed to suggest they did care for each other. 

"When I had a heart attack in 1989 and required open heart surgery, he cared enough to ring up my wife to ask her to delay the operation as he had arranged for the best heart surgeon, a Singaporean living in Australia, to do the operation," he wrote.

"But by then, I had been given pre-med and was asleep prior to the operation the next day."

When Mr Lee was ill, Dr Mahathir said he asked to see him.

"He agreed, but the night before the visit, the Singapore High Commissioner received a message that he was very sick and could not see me."

asruls@sph.com.sg