Comparing Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir

With the recent passing of the architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, KiniBiz revisits two older articles, updated and combined into one for this purpose, written in 2013. It compares and contrasts the different styles of Lee with those of Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and the eventual impact on the respective countries.

tun_M_vs_LKYThese sometimes foes, sometimes mutual admirers who were the longest serving prime ministers for Malaysia and Singapore have much in common—but they are very disparate in some other areas—and therein lies the different contributions they made to their countries.

The older Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Mar 23, was the longest serving prime minister in Asia, ruling Singapore as chief minister from 1959 at the tender age of 36 and then as prime minister from the time it was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, right up to 1990, making in all over 30 years.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a hardline Umno member who played a key role in ousting Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in the wake of the May 1969 riots, climbed rapidly to become Malaysia’s fourth prime minister in 1981, continuing until 2003, for a long reign of 22 years. That’s just three years short of Lee’s reign as prime minister of an independent country of 25 years.

Lee’s book, One Man’s View of the World, with pointed barbs at Malaysia, has predictably raised hackles here, especially for Lee’s criticism of Malaysia’s New Economic Policy which sought to favour Malays to improve their economic standing.

Lee shares many similarities with Mahathir

Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad at the latter’s office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on April 27, 2005.
(AFP PHOTO/Bazuki Muhammad)

Still, Lee shares many similarities with Mahathir, which no doubt contributed to their long reigns as prime ministers of their respective countries, but it is in their differences that some of the things that mattered comes to the fore and show why Singapore has progressed economically far beyond Malaysia and even beyond Singapore’s own wildest dreams.

We list five similarities between Mahathir and Lee and follow up with five crucial differences which help to explain the different stages of economic development between the two countries. This goes beyond meritocracy and affirmative action, the factors Lee seems to have latched on to in his book.

The similarities

1. They both clung to power resolutely.

They both used all means available to them to retain power. In Singapore this even included a system of four Parliamentary representatives for a single constituency to keep the budding opposition at bay. Early in his reign Lee used preventive and other laws to get rid of political opponents who he used to get into the seat of power in the first place.

Mahathir was ruthless against opponents in Umno. When he nearly lost the Umno elections for top post in 1987, he created a new Umno Baru, leaving out his opponents. In 1998, he used the weight of the law enforcement machinery against his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim on trumped up charges of sodomy after Anwar postured against him.

2. They both used the judiciary to stifle dissent.

Mahathir mounted a systematic attack against what was considered a largely independent judiciary in 1987/88, sacking the judicial head at that time, bringing the control of the judiciary under the executive and undermining the integrity of the institution. The judiciary is yet to recover from this assault.

Lee regularly took legal action against political opponents for defamation, silencing them and even bankrupting them with the help of a compliant judiciary. He also took legal action against foreign newspapers and periodicals which criticised him and his administration, forcing apologies from them. He brooked no dissent against his administration of the island state.

3. They both ruled with an iron fist.

While they were democratically elected neither paid much attention to other democratic principles, with Lee being much worse than Mahathir. Singapore continues to be one of the most oppressed countries in South East Asia with not even a semblance of a free press and with dissent being hardly tolerated even to this day.

4. They both couldn’t let go.

Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990 but remained in the Cabinet until 2011, leaving only after the ruling People’s Action Party’s worst ever showing in the general elections. His presence in the Cabinet must have been intimidating and one can reasonably expect that no one would dare to oppose him, especially after his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004. The younger Lee was carefully groomed, indicating elements of nepotism, and while very able, one wonders if he would have become prime minister so fast if he was not Lee’s son.

Mahathir stepped down in 2003 but has incessantly poked his nose into politics and anything else of interest unlike previous past prime ministers. He launched a fierce and bitter campaign to unseat Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who eventually made way for Najib Abdul Razak after a poor showing in the 2008 polls following upon the best ever performance for Barisan Nasional in 2004. Now, Mahathir is cultivating his son Mukriz, a not particularly bright politician, who has become chief minister of Kedah after the 2013 polls. Another son, Mokhzani, is now a billionaire not least because of contracts from Petronas, of which Mahathir is adviser. Mahathir is now a thorn in Najib’s side.

5. They both are racist.

Lee, racist? Yes. He has gone on public record to say that the Chinese population in Singapore must be maintained at some 80%. Why would he do that if he was not? True to his word and intention, Singapore has imported many Chinese from overseas to keep to this, including those from the mainland, even at the expense of considerable social disruptions such as language and culture. A group of mainland Chinese in a condominium were reported to have tried to stop other occupants from cooking curry, sparking a sympathetic outcry from other Singaporeans of all races and to even declare a curry day.

Mahathir rose to the political fore via racist politics, expounding some of his thoughts in the controversial but unscientific book The Malay Dilemma which was banned until he came to power in 1981. As education minister he led the charge to teach all subjects in school in Malay but subsequently overturned it for science and maths subjects just before he stepped down as prime minister. Mahathir’s policy change itself was overturned and the teaching of science and maths went back to Malay and the vernacular languages.

Till this day, Mahathir tries to whip the Malay community into a frenzy by exaggerating fears that if they backed down in Malaysia’s race-based politics, they will become eventual losers in their own land. He has tried to use such methods to keep himself in power previously.

So much for the similarities.

What made all the difference between Malaysia’s and Singapore’s economic achievements, with the latter leapfrogging the former in virtually all areas and sectors was the differences in approach of two of their longest serving prime ministers.

We look at how Mahathir and Lee handled some things differently, which made all the difference really in terms of why Singapore progressed much faster than us in all areas of material development, far surpassing Malaysia to become one of the most developed countries in the world.

While some of us are likely to attribute a large part of the Singapore growth spurt to it being an island, urban state, any comparison with urban Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley will still conclusively show that Singapore is far ahead.

The differences which made a difference

Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad at the latter’s office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on April 27, 2005.
(AFP PHOTO/Bazuki Muhammad)

Below are five differences between the two former prime ministers which are likely to have accounted for much of the gap over the years between Malaysia and Singapore, which started off at a very similar stage of development decades ago in the mid sixties to mid seventies with their currencies interchangeable up to 1975.

The differences

1. Mahathir fostered corruption and patronage, Lee crushed it.

Mahathir used his executive power to promote corruption and patronage, arbitrarily assigning plum contracts and privatisations to cronies, largely Malays but which also included those of other races. He used the excuse of government inefficiency to privatise huge swaths of profitable government businesses, allowing price increases which burdened the public and benefited companies.

Lee on the other hand crushed corruption and patronage at all levels and single-mindedly focused on getting the best prices and the most efficient companies to undertake government projects. He grew a bunch of ably-managed government-owned corporations (Example: Singapore Airlines and DBS Bank), getting the best, including from Malaysia, to run them. Government companies are even more strongly present in Singapore than Malaysia but the difference is they have to compete and get no special treatment.

2. Mahathir promoted incompetence, Lee promoted excellence.

Mahathir thought he knew best (Example: Setting up Proton against all advice and going into heavy industries) and axed those who did not agree with his grand vision. What he eventually got as his key staff were those who merely nodded in agreement with everything he did, there being no debate and discussion over measures contemplated and taken. His decisions were also coloured by his twisted views on the reasons as to why Malays were backward and his obvious belief that the end justifies the means, even if it meant putting incompetence at the top.

Lee too had definite ideas about what he wanted to do with Singapore. But in addition to wiping out corruption at all levels, he put excellence and competence at the top of his list, recruiting only the best into his Cabinet and key positions elsewhere. Clean, excellent human capital, no matter where they came from, was at the heart of his programme for change.

3. Mahathir emasculated the civil service, Lee made it super efficient.

Mahathir made the civil service bureaucratic, Lee made it technocratic. The difference is crucial. Under Mahathir, governing became political with very substantial discretionary powers with ministers and civil servants who dished out the dole under a patronage and corrupt system. Lee and his Cabinet did the planning, communicated the policies and let a super-efficient civil service go out and do the implementation without fear or favour to any particular party. Doing business in Singapore was easy – if you met the criteria, you got the go ahead, no ifs and buts and greasing palms.

4. Mahathir protected industries, Lee killed industries that could not survive.

Mahathir promoted and protected inefficient industries such as steel and cars, continuing to give tariff protection for many years after they were set up. Lee killed off inefficient industries and focused on those that could become competitive in the global market. Singapore no longer has a car assembly industry for instance because cars can be imported whole for cheaper than they could be assembled there. And Singapore basically has no tariffs on any products, plugging it into the world market.

5. Mahathir begun the education rot, Lee raised educational quality to new levels.

Mahathir led much of the the changes in the education system in the seventies when he was education minister, when English was replaced as the medium of instruction, teacher entry standards were dropped, quotas imposed, and the quality of education dropped to get more graduates, especially bumiputeras.

Lee on the other hand raised the educational bar putting resources into raising educational quality at all levels from primary and secondary to tertiary. The National University of Singapore often ranks as among the 20 highest ranked institutions in the world and Singapore’s education system is among the best in the world, generating a stream of highly qualified people for a more productive workforce.

Well, that’s five but there are probably lots more. It would be simplistic to say that these five were the only reasons for the gap between Malaysia and Singapore but they probably account for much of the difference.

While Mahathir was able to match and even outdo Lee politically in terms of maintaining his power in a more plural and complex system by all kinds of dubious methods, he did very little with the power at his disposal in terms of helping Malaysia. In fact he did substantial damage economically instead.

The material contribution by Lee to his country was much more than Mahathir because of the ways in which he was different. While both were despotic, Lee was more of a benevolent despot with Singapore showing much more all round economic development than Malaysia and outdoing it in virtually every sphere of business activity.

Lucky for Singapore that Lee was not a corrupt despot for he could have done much damage to the republic with the absolute power that he had. The big loss for Singapore was freedom and until today Singapore, despite all its economic development, struggles to achieve full democratic expression.

Singapore holds one dubious record — it is probably the most developed country in the world to be so democratically suppressed, and really it does not need to be despite what Lee continued to assert.

It is time for Singapore to move towards checks and balances in terms of its politics and that means freeing up democracy and legitimate dissent so that the government can be changed easily if the population so wishes. In that respect, Malaysia is ahead, but not by a whole lot.

Adapted from KiniBiz by P Gunasegaram.


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