Lee Kuan Yew brought out some questions in Malaysia


Passing of Lee Kuan Yew: On Pointe – Our love-hate relationship with Singapore

Perhaps the impetus of our acrimony and rivalry is not just that Malaysia and Singapore have a shared history, but more so because we used to be one until Singapore was “expelled” from Malaysia. A term used by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (in his eulogy for Lee Kuan Yew) who continued to described the separation as his father’s “greatest ‘moment of anguish’, but (that) it also proved to be the turning point in Singapore’s fortunes”.

So perhaps our resentment is further fuelled by the fact that despite driving it out of Malaysia, to the point of even threatening to cut water supply, Singapore still succeeded – it overtook us, sped up and now are too far ahead for us to even catch up. Could its success be a constant reminder and the fuel of our rivalry? After all, isn’t success the best form of revenge?

Some might argue that drawing comparisons about success might not be a fair or reasonable observation. After all, in 1965, Singapore and Malaysia had different starting points. Economic data of that time seems to vary like Goldilocks’ porridge. Some historians say that Singapore was the wealthier sibling to start with, others say it was poorer, and then there are those who say both countries had the same baseline. In fact, it was Malaysia that chose to terminate the tripartite currency interchangeability system in 1973 which meant the ringgit, was no longer at par with the Singapore and Brunei dollar.

Today, the Malaysian ringgit continues to shrink in a steady decline against that of the very country we expelled.

There are other glaring differences. Singapore’s land mass is smaller and so is its population, making it easier to govern and regulate. Therefore some might argue there are closer similarities between Singapore and countries such as Hong Kong and Brunei but not so much with Malaysia.

Yet when Singapore was in mourning over the passing of its founding father, it was hard not to draw comparisons with Malaysia and for some it raised the “what if” question of how different life would have been had they grown up on the other side of the pond. Admittedly some might not have been born given Singapore’s “stop at two” family planning policy which led to decreased fertility rates only to be followed by the “Great Marriage Debate” – an effort to augment the “thinning gene pool” by encouraging graduate women to have larger families. Yet Singapore even with such controlling features, including its notable ban on chewing gum, has the power and vision to draw Malaysia’s cream of the crop to its shores, from young Asean scholars to employing the most number of Malaysians, breaking our talent bank.

We can argue that it is the money that draws talent. After all, why would you want to stay and earn three times less when you can earn much more so close to home?

On a superficial level, that makes sense, but what about being the world’s second safest city, or the opportunities of working in a globally connected economically competitive cosmopolitan city with career opportunities based on meritocracy? Why hasn’t Malaysia then been able to do this for its people?

Earlier this year, a very accomplished Malaysian reached a brick wall with employment opportunities locally but had better offers at globally recognised and reputable organisations across the causeway. While waiting for his flight to his new home he lamented sadly, “why do I have to move to Singapore?”

If only such talent could flourish in Malaysia, we’d be the ones to catch up to. What’s even sadder with this story is that our country didn’t even put up a fight to retain such good talent.

So even if you want to stay, at some point between affirmative action and the lack of suitable opportunities, the lure of not having to deal with such ridiculous challenges pushes Malaysians towards Singapore, and yes an earning capacity that makes sense helps too. How did Singapore managed to do this and not us?

Both countries trumpet multiculturalism yet in Singapore most major train station signage have English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil translations on them. It is these simple things that say to citizens you belong, you are welcomed, you matter and this is your country, this is our shared country.

This is how nationalism is built in the midst of multiculturalism. Of course it takes more than multi-lingual signage to cultivate loyalty and devotion but it is such inclusion and ownership that builds patriotism.

Both our countries share a similar stance of developing the economy first. Singapore’s benevolent dictator once said “What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend”.

Speeches are very often quoted and used as a measure of a person’s character even if it’s not a true reflection. But looking at the thousands that turned up and queued for hours to pay their last respects, there was a genuine love and appreciation by the people for their leader who not only possessed a true gratefulness for looking after the people’s welfare but also building Singapore into a country its citizens are proud of.

Democracy has been a loose and fluid term in describing the political situation for both Malaysia and Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew was known to not tolerate dissent and so has our government. Yet, even though there was disagreement with one party ruling the nation all these years, the opposition leader of Singapore was invited and given a seat at the public funeral service. Graciousness and gentlemanliness shone through even in disagreement – a rare quality in politicians more so in authoritarians.

There are many opinions about Lee Kuan Yew’s style of governing, some in praise and others berating him. Yet, for all the bad that he did, plenty of good has come out of it. Singapore is an economic powerhouse with a generous healthcare system, world-class education and a solid housing programme, not to mention proud and patriotic citizens.

Just as Singaporeans are so indebted to their first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for building the country up, the unfortunate truth is that Malaysia stands as a reminder of “what if”?

Malaysia and Singapore will always be neighbouring rivals, but at times like these, credit should be given where it is due.

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