Speaking at a forum on the sidelines of the World Bank-International Monetary Fund meetings last week, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was widely quoted as saying that Singapore’s neighbours had problems with their Chinese communities because they were successful and hardworking and “therefore, they are systematically marginalised” – a provocative statement that has, of course, not gone down well with Singapore’s northern neighbour.
Worried about the political implications Lee’s remarks will have within Malaysia, the country’s top politicians have been united in demands for a retraction, apology and explanation from Lee for his “baseless statement”. Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said that Lee’s statement could cause the Malaysian people to be dissatisfied with their government. The Backbenchers Club (BBC) has called for Lee to apologise openly to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his government. BBC acting chairman Raja Ahmad Zainuddin Raja Omar told reporters that Malaysia’s political culture is different from Singapore. Pointing out that Malaysia never gets involved in Singapore's internal affairs, he said, "Singapore has gone overboard ... very often, its leaders say things that hurt the feelings of its neighbours. But we are wise and mature. We do not want to react when Singapore deliberately provokes us.”
While Malaysia and Singapore have close cultural and economic ties, diplomatic relations have often been strained over various disputes, such as the price of water that Malaysia sells to its southern neighbor, and have even taken a dispute over a tiny islet to the International Court of Justice. However, such testy bilateral tensions were more common during the administrations of Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his southern counterpart Lee. The current tension comes amidst what analysts have previously observed as a change in climate under Malaysia’s incumbent prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the younger Lee Hsien Loong.
Many Malaysian politicians are puzzled about and suspicious of Lee’s motives and intentions for making the “naughty” remarks. Some believe Lee had a hidden agenda aimed at tarnishing Malaysia’s image. The general consensus is that as a former prime minister, Lee should certainly know the negative impact his remarks could have on neighbouring countries. Umno vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin said Lee was among those who founded the concept of Asean co-operation to foster greater understanding in the region and should know that such remarks would not benefit the region.
While Malaysia's population of 26.6 million people consists of some 60 percent Malay Muslims, or bumiputeras, the economy is largely controlled by the 26 percent ethnic Chinese population. To rectify the inequities, the Malaysian government has a long-standing system of positive discrimination which sees Malays favoured in business and education. Referring to this decades-old affirmative action policy, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said Lee’s comments were inaccurate as there was no effort to block the non-bumiputeras in the country from progressing further, but on the contrary, efforts were focused towards striking a balance between bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras, to ensure the bumiputeras were not left behind from the national development.
Abdullah said that Lee’s statement was not fair, inappropriate, and tantamount to instigating the Malaysian Chinese. “Lee should understand that our relationship with Singapore is one that has to be nurtured well. He should appreciate the stability we have on our side, because if we are not stable, Singapore will have problems,” Abdullah added. Abdullah also made it clear that he will be writing to Lee to seek clarification on the latter’s statements that Malaysian Chinese were being marginalised.
In a tit-for-tat, Abdullah added that, “Singapore too has problems in terms of race relations. Not everything there is 100 per cent perfect.” Finally up against a common enemy, Mahathir, a frequent critic of Singapore before he retired in 2003, also accused Lee of hypocrisy and criticised the republic’s Minister Mentor for pointing fingers at his neighbours. Mahathir called on the city-state to probe its own issues. He said an independent body should be set up to look into why the Singapore Government made it 'official' policy to marginalise the Malay community in the city state. Mahathir questioned why Malays in Singapore had not been given opportunities to hold high positions in government bodies like the armed forces and the wide per capita income disparity between the Chinese and Malays.
Mahathir said Lee should “look after his own rice-bowl” and not interfere with other countries. Reminding Lee that Singapore is “tiny” so “don’t be too proud”, the former Malaysian leader also told Lee not to feel smug about what he had said, noting that the Minister Mentor only looked wise in his own “tiny” country. He said China did not think much of Lee and the Chinese there don’t want to listen to him. “The Chinese in China don’t think much of him and it is a fact that he is marginalised by Chinese in the world”, he added.
The Malaysian Chinese community too has been quick to refute Lee’s statement. Gerakan president Lim Keng Yaik said Lee’s perspective was all wrong and clarified that the Chinese here will not follow and listen to what he says. Gerakan deputy president and Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon said Lee did not understand and appreciate the challenges in leading and administrating a country that was bigger, more complicated and diverse than Singapore – a sentiment echoed to the press by many Malaysian politicians. Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) party president Ong Ka Ting called Lee’s remarks a “trap”, and warned Malaysians to remain united and not get worked up by Lee’s statement. Calling Lee “someone who is over-confident and always thinks that he is right” – another perspective told to reporters by many Malaysian politicians – Ong, whose party is the second largest group in Malaysia's ruling coalition after the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) headed by Abdullah, said Lee’s statement was not only unfair, but also not good for the harmonious ties among the different races in Malaysia. Stressing that Malaysia knew what it was doing, he said the country would not allow those remarks to create unnecessary disharmony and suspicion.
Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad went further. When asked at a news conference why he thought Lee had made the comments, Mahathir said, 'He feels he is strong. He is the proud type. He is not bothered with his neighbours. That is why he deliberately raised something he knew to be sensitive in our country.'
Echoing Mahathir’s sentiments, MCA Youth chief Liow Tiong Lai said Lee should “mind his own business” as Malaysians knew how to live in harmony and had done so for a long time.
But while Malaysia’s government promotes its record of maintaining harmony, there are deep concerns over the increasing polarisation between the races and a lack of social unity.
Singapore’s pro-government paper, The Straits Times, on Monday (25 September) reported views from within Malaysia that were in support of Lee’s comments. The Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) said it was an “obvious fact” that the Chinese in Malaysia were marginalised. Lim referred to the criticism of Lee’s comments by the Malaysian Chinese parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition as 'politics of denial' by BN leaders. “It is dishonest as BN leaders themselves have stated that discriminatory government policies such as quotas and the New Economic Policy that result in some political and social marginalisation are necessary for racial harmony and national stability,” he said.
Malaysia’s The China Press daily on Sunday (24 September) reported veteran Chinese educationist Sim Mou Yu as saying that Chinese Malaysians should thank MM Lee for pointing out they had been marginalised. Though it was reality, Chinese political parties had preferred to keep quiet about it, he said. A Nanyang Siang Pau editorial concluded with the remark, “Lee Kuan Yew's comments may create some impact, nevertheless, they will not help Chinese Malaysians politically as they come from an elder statesman from Singapore.”
Lee’s comment ‘naughty’ (The Star, 22 September 2006)
Kuan Yew's comments naughty, says Najib (Malaysia General News, 21 September 2006)
I want to get an explanation from Lee, says Abdullah (The Star, 24 September 2006)
Dr M: Probe low status of Singapore Malays (The Star, 23 September 2006)
Don’t get worked up over Lee’s statement (The Star, 23 September 2006)
Mahathir hits out at MM Lee's comments on Chinese (The Straits Times, 23 September 2006)
Kuan Yew’s statement wrong, says Keng Yaik (New Straits Times, 23 September 2006)
Explain yourself, PM tells Kuan Yew (New Straits Times, 24 September 2006)
Malaysia's Mahathir says Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew "not that clever" following race remarks (AP, 23 September 2006)
Malaysian Backbenchers Want Kuan Yew to Apologise (Star, 23 September 2006)
Malaysia chides Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew (AFP, 22 September 2006)
Mahathir dismisses Singapore as a "tiny" country (Reuters, 23 September 2006)
Chinese Malaysians are marginalised: DAP (The Straits Times, 25 September 2006)