This is part two of a two-part feature, remembering Lee Kuan Yew from across the Straits. Part one is written by a Singaporean. Part two is written by a Malaysian.
By the time my generation came of age in the nineties, the Singapore-Malaysia rivalry had already lost its fire. Now, it’s no longer the island that got away but a weekend holiday state for privileged Malaysians, quick trips for festivals, concerts or shopping – quick enough to forget as soon as we cross the border to Johor.
You might know someone who went to school there, or a relative who emigrated. But all in all the Singapore of today doesn’t really stir our hopes or enthusiasm. Malaysians by and large are more attuned to culture and politics in Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Call it a low profile in regional controversies or just banality. But the root of Singapore’s order is Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. For it’s the outcome of a practical trade-off which he perfected over time: stability in exchange for liberty.
As the logic goes, freedom is often just too messy, what more with all the ethnicities and religions constantly vying for recognition. In the long run, security and growth is more precious. A country in the global South could do more with strict laws, clean streets, efficient public transport and sparkling malls than with human rights.
The root of Singapore’s order is Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. For it’s the outcome of a practical trade off which he perfected over time: stability in exchange for liberty.
Lee Kuan Yew relished his role in pruning the garden state, stating that he had no qualms for interfering in private lives. “Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
Lee Kuan Yew lived through the British Empire, the Japanese invasion, the independence of Singapore and the federation of Malaysia. He was lucky to survive the Sook Ching massacre during the Japanese occupation, after which he made it to the upper echelons of British higher education – all while still in his twenties. But his legacy ensured that this tumultuous history would be forgotten by many Singaporeans, whose country instead came to stand for smooth infrastructure and efficiency.
As for us, it’s not without a certain begrudging jealousy that the stereotype of “robotic” Singaporeans prevails here. You have First World status, but at least we’re not boring; at least we are real. Here we find the rare moments when Malaysia’s problems appear useful, if briefly, in imagination.
Yet we forget that Lee Kuan Yew was among those who popularised the phrase “Malaysian Malaysia” (still evoked today in some quarters) when he campaigned to joined the Federation. Our union was a short-lived two years. The Tunku ejected Singapore out of the Federation when a major race riot erupted on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in 1964, killing 23 and injuring hundreds.
It was a rejection that affronted Lee deeply. His tearful speech of separation remains an iconic moment in popular memory, where he reiterated his wish to maintain the union. Race, it turns out, was the far bigger force than history.
One feels an awkward chill looking back to all this, for in the details of his life, we find a world that is not unlike our own. The Straits were another place then, but not too foreign; a place our parents can still recall. Lee Kuan Yew was animated by fears that were also felt here. The tenuousness of building a multiracial nation and the uncertainties of the Cold War informed his statesmanship.
Like our Malaysian leaders, he too acted against labour unions and student activists. In what was to announce his seriousness, he launched Operation Coldstore just four years into power, arresting a total of 117 dissidents under the Internal Security Act. It was a move to pre-empt the perceived ascendancy of the Malaysian Communist Party and its possible influence in Singapore. The former editor of Utusan Melayu, Said Zahari, was an ISA detainee of 17 years. He now resides in Subang Jaya.
Historically, Singapore has always been a part of our narrative, just as we in many ways are part of theirs. We share a cuisine, the same awkward English, the same insecurities of progress. Connections made over centuries. Slaves and their kings, soldiers, empires, goods, thinkers and scholars flowed across the waters with little to no thought.
A separation was solidified, and we are its children.
Lee Kuan Yew rose as a figurehead to change that. It was not in circumstances of his making. It happened along our “national interests” and resulted in an ebb and flow of reluctant rivalry. Reluctant because while a nation needs a history, it is also nothing without borders, for an identity to affirm. Nationalism triumphed over shared culture and kinship. A separation was solidified, and we are its children.
The differences Malaysians insist on seeing in Singapore today (food, people, lifestyle, transport) appear feeble but they are significant clues for a sense of just how shallow our political and regional instincts have become. Or more ominously they could just indicate the possibility that Malaysia and Singapore’s similarities may be too obvious to bear. They would reveal just how much we still are alike.
If Singapore appears superficial to us, it is because we cannot see its story as ours. We are the kind of neighbours that keep to ourselves. This was Lee Kuan Yew’s eventual triumph over Malaysia, and perhaps his most enduring feat.
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