KUALA LUMPUR — Two of Asia’s best-known strongmen, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, had much in common—a streak of authoritarianism, little tolerance for dissent and vision that changed the face of their countries.
But friends they were not, and the two rarely saw eye to eye. In fact one of their only agreements was to move their countries’ time—which was 7 ½ hours ahead of GMT—forward by half an hour to be in line with world time zones.
“I am afraid on most other issues we could not agree. … I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew, but still I feel sad at his demise,” Mahathir wrote on his blog on Friday.
With Lee’s death at age 91, Mahathir remains the last of a generation of old guards in Southeast Asia, which boomed economically under their authoritarian leadership and came to be known as the “tiger economies.” Indonesia’s Suharto, spoken in the same breath as these two, died in 2008.
Both Lee and Mahathir were English-educated leaders, who successfully delivered economic prosperity—to varying degrees—and gave international prominence to their countries. They were respected, but ruled with iron fists, curbing civil liberties and using harsh laws against political opponents.
Yet Lee and Mahathir leave starkly different legacies from their time in power.
During his 31 years as prime minister, Lee transformed Singapore, a marshy island trading post with no natural resources, into Asia’s richest nation as measured by GDP per capita, five times higher than Malaysia. He crushed corruption at all levels, built a top-notch, efficient bureaucracy, set up an excellent education system and focused on creating world-class service industries that would be competitive in a global market.
Mahathir, meanwhile, fostered a patronage system by giving out contracts to his cronies, and his policies increased bureaucratic red tape. Despite having far more resources and a much bigger workforce, he promoted and protected inefficient industries such as steel and cars with tariff protection.
“Both men are equally Machiavellian in their methods. They are both alike in the kind of politics they employ but Lee Kuan Yew achieved much, much more than Mahathir despite having a lot less resources and capital,” said Malaysian political analyst Ibrahim Suffian.
Although the two were contemporaries—Mahathir is only two years younger—Lee shot to prominence much earlier. He was already the prime minister of Singapore when it became independent of British colonial rule in 1963. The same year the small island-nation joined neighboring Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia, believing it needed to be part of a bigger country to survive. Mahathir became a Parliament member in 1964, and that was the first time the two met.
“We crossed swords many time during the debates. But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation,” Mahathir wrote.
But the federation was a marriage that was doomed to fail. For one, the ethnic Malay leaders of Malaysia were suspicious of Lee, an ethnic Chinese. Soon ideological and political differences surfaced, and Singapore was expelled from the federation in 1965, leaving Lee to set his own course with a vision that until today defines Singapore.
He ensured that the country ran on meritocracy. He demanded the best prices and most efficient companies handle government projects. Government-linked companies compete for projects with private companies. Although ethnic Chinese are a majority in Singapore, and Malays and Indians form large minorities, nobody gets special preference.
“Despite his autocracy, Lee Kuan Yew was driven with building meritocracy that saw Singapore grow by leaps and bounds, but Malaysia is hobbled by its racial politics and insecurities,” Ibrahim said.
Mahathir, who became prime minister in 1981, championed an affirmative action program for the country’s Malay majority, which to this day is the root cause of deep disenchantment among the minority Chinese and Indians. Mahathir saw the Malays—with good reason—as downtrodden and gave them privileges in business, education and housing. He promoted race-based politics to ensure that his Malay party dominated politics. That legacy continues.
Lee faced criticism for the strict limits on free speech and public protest, which he insisted were necessary to maintain stability and order and to promote economic growth in his multiethnic, multi-religious country. Although his electoral politics to quash the opposition were questionable, his People’s Action Party, or PAP, has members from all races.
“Lee was an unshakeable bulwark against majoritarian tendencies that could have easily overwhelmed Singapore,” said Cherian George, a Singapore author, academic and commentator. “Lee went to the extent of amending the republic’s Constitution to stop any party from sweeping into power without minority support,” he wrote on his blog on Sunday.
Mahathir, a doctor-turned-politician and Malaysia’s fourth prime minister, helped turn the country from an agricultural backwater into a key trading nation during his 22-year rule before stepping down in 2003. With the help of massive petroleum and palm oil revenues, he oversaw grand infrastructure projects such as the Petronas Twin Towers, which once were the world’s tallest; he also built a technology hub, a new capital city and an F1 race track.
He also used a security law allowing indefinite detention without trial against political opponents and critics. And unlike Lee, he was no friend of the West. In fact, he lost no opportunity to criticize it, especially the US war in Iraq.
Singapore’s higher wages, standard of living and merit-based system have drawn tens of thousands of Malaysians, mainly ethnic Chinese, to the city-state. A 2011 World Bank report said more than 1 million Malaysians live abroad and warned the outflow of skilled workers could hurt Malaysia’s economy.
Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990, but remained a commanding presence in Singapore politics and the region for decades. He also successfully groomed his son Lee Hsien Loong, who became Singapore’s prime minister in 2004.
Mahathir, however, failed to retain much clout after he resigned.
Today he is seen by many as a former leader who rails against his successors and bemoans in his blogs the weak governance of a country he once dominated.
A recent blog comment captured his ever-critical outlook: There’s “something rotten in the state of Malaysia.”