Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Malaysians yearn for a Malay version of Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Now that he's gone, Malaysians are having another look at Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy, and some say they want a similar version - in their own country.

Struggling with perceptions of rising corruption, and worried about rising sectarianism - such as Malay Muslim parties pushing for Islamic criminal law this month, despite protests from minorities - Malaysians are yearning for strong leadership that can take some of the tough decisions they think will solve the woes of the country.

"We need a Malay version," former law minister Zaid Ibrahim told The Sunday Times, referring to Mr Lee. "He made unpopular decisions but stuck to his principles of good governance and integrity."

The contrasting economic and social paths taken by the two neighbours since 1965 is often the subject of comparison in salons in Kuala Lumpur and around the country. There is also talk about Mr Lee's famous spats with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In their nine overlapping years as prime ministers, they bickered over numerous issues such as the purchase of water from Malaysia, rekindling their fierce debates from when both were Malaysian MPs in 1964.

"We crossed swords many times during the debates. 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," Dr Mahathir said in his blog after Mr Lee's passing. "Somebody else whom I would not name did,'' he added.

Yet, some believe that Mr Lee retained an attachment to Malaysia.

"People underestimate the attachment to Malaysia which Mr Lee had," according to Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, whose father Tun Hussein Onn was Malaysia's third prime minister and has known the Lee family for six decades.

"Not many people know his fondness and experience with Malaysia. He vividly remembered those experiences and had fond memories of villages. I hope he managed to rekindle them in his last few years and to do what he hoped to do, which is to relive his experiences."

To be sure, not all share these rosy memories of Mr Lee, who was often portrayed in Malaysia as a bogeyman whose continued presence in the country would have caused instability.

Still, even critics have a grudging respect for the man. During a week-long whirlwind tour in 2009, he saw Tun Abdullah Badawi - who had just resigned as prime minister two months before - party presidents, chief ministers and even Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, son of long-time nemesis Dr Mahathir, clamour for his time.

Dr Mahathir - Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister - noted in his blog that beyond matching time zones, the two rarely agreed. Except, perhaps, on their shared disgust for smoking. Dr Mahathir banned smoking at Cabinet meetings and gave his children hell if he caught them smoking.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin related: "He (Lee) had this hatred for people who smoke, and he had this uncanny ability to detect people who had just had a cigarette. I was a smoker at one time, and I was really worried when I met him.

"I would get all my refresher for my mouth and perfume ready because he made it very clear when he smelled smoke in the air."

Additional reporting by Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.