I was at the Singapore High Commission over the weekend, penning a short condolence message in memory of the late Lee Kuan Yew. I wrote that he was a leader who was well-respected by his people, and that they will not abandon the plans he crafted for Singapore. He will be cherished for a long time and his words of wisdom will be remembered by Singaporeans for generations to come. He was indeed very lucky to be such a leader.
I felt sad that our own founder Tunku Abdul Rahman was not so lucky. The present leaders and some people in Malaysia did not feel such reverence for him in the end. His proclamation of independence, which described his vision for the country as a liberal democracy with a government governed by the rule of law, and as a prosperous, multiracial nation, is now a dream long gone; for some years now, it has been jettisoned as irrelevant.
We no longer care about the legal and economic framework that Tunku started when he gained our independence from the British in 1957 and when he successfully formed the Federation of Malaysia. Instead, a new ideology for the country – mistrust for meritocracy, awe of religious autocracy and a Malay-first policy from an autocratic style of government – has taken over, and it abandons the principles that Tunku held dear.
Even in the last few years of his life, Tunku was saddened that many of his plans for the country were no longer being followed. He was sad that many Malay ultras had accused him of neglecting Malays. He wanted Malays to progress, just like the Chinese, but he felt that it would take time. There was no simple plan to accelerate and change his people’s values overnight.
He wanted them to excel in education first and later in business. He wanted Malays to appreciate science and be able to reason when faced with life’s predicaments. He wanted them to be competitive and master life skills the hard way. He was not prepared to put in place a Malay-first policy to the extent that we see today because he did not think that it would be good for Malays in the long term.
He spoke about Islam all the time, but not like the present leaders do. He wanted Islam to focus on charity, good and ethical conduct and compassion. Civil servants during Tunku’s tenure had to record all their meals when they were being entertained by businessmen because he did not want them compromised in the course of discharging their public duties. They were not permitted to accept gifts of any kind, or fully paid holidays. Even gifts given to Tunku when he was prime minister had to be recorded. He wanted the civil service to be professional and ethical.
He was the prime mover of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and served the body as its first secretary-general. He did not think Islam or religious laws should be the basis of the constitution and he said so explicitly. He wanted Muslims to be strong but on a personal level, and did not believe in using religion to alter the country’s democratic institutions.
There were, however, also many differences between Tunku and LKY. Tunku understood the Malay psyche, their fears and feelings of inadequacy. He was delicate yet hard on them at the same time. He wanted to make Malays modern and successful but he knew they needed time. He would not push them the way LKY would have, by throwing them into the deep end.
He resented the manner in which LKY treated Malays when Singapore was in Malaysia. On several occasions, LKY spoke about the privileges Malays were enjoying, as if they did not deserve them. LKY spoke about the weaknesses of certain groups (he was referring to Malays) in science and mathematics, and seemed to suggest that Malays were intellectually weak, which inhibited their growth as a community.
Some will say LKY was a frank and candid leader and that he called a spade a spade. However, at that time in our nation’s history, Malays also deserved more understanding from their leaders and LKY was not at all interested in toning down his strident criticism of government policies, or in showing any kind of empathy to Malay sensitivities.
Tunku probably would have been more successful and not pushed Singapore out of the federation in 1965 had LKY been more sympathetic to his difficulties in managing Malays. If LKY had been more supportive of Tunku’s effort to give extra help to Malays in terms of education opportunities and the development of infrastructure, less critical of these affirmative programmes, and more sensitive to the issues that affected Malays, Tunku would have been able to deal with the ultra Malays more effectively and Singapore would probably still be part of Malaysia. If LKY had been more patient with Tunku as to the future direction of Malaysia and gained the trust of Malays, he would have made a good partner to build this newly independent nation.
It’s a shame that both leaders, whose beliefs were steeped deeply in the values Western education, who studied and cherished the values of a democratic Britain and who also had the strength to impose strong rule when it mattered, were not able to transform and develop Malaysia on the models of market economies and free enterprise. They could not sit together to build the country in peace. This relationship was doomed by egos, personality differences and a mutual unwillingness to compromise.
Although LKY wept on hearing the news of Singapore’s expulsion, I attribute that incident to his failings more than Tunku’s. Malaysia would be a different country today if Singapore had remained a part of it. Tunku, LKY, Tun Razak and Tun Dr Ismail (if the latter two had lived longer) would have made a formidable team and we would be a far more successful country today.
Without Singapore in the wings and without LKY articulating his mantra of “Malaysian Malaysia”, the ultra Malays, led by Dr Mahathir, gained huge momentum. They filled the vacuum with the help of a young Islamist named Anwar Ibrahim. They were able to push Tunku out after May 1969 and the country’s history was rewritten by the introduction of the NEP, followed by the Malay-first and Islamisation policies.
Malaysia has come full circle: Malays have become Arabs, Malay words have changed to Arabic, and their Western education has changed to the Islamic variety. Malaysia’s identity no longer follows Tunku’s vision. Singapore remained true to the dreams of its founder, and very successfully as well. That’s the tale of the two leaders, in short. – zaid.my, March 31, 2015.
* Datuk Zaid Ibrahim is a lawyer turned politician and a former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of legal affairs and judicial reform.