The World’s Eye on “One Man’s View…”
On 12 August 2013 At 11:20 AM
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by Vinod Ashvin Ravi
Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew released a new tome of his insights last week – just ahead of the nation’s 48th National Day – and media outlets across the world have been quick to report it.
It may have helped feed the international media’s appetite that unlike his previous books, One Man’s View Of The World predominantly features Mr Lee’s views of countries beyond our little red dot.
No stranger to bold judgments, the more tendentious of Mr Lee’s opinions have drawn both comment and controversy. Various passages within the book have elicited reactions – both positive and negative – from politicians, observers and media houses alike overseas.
It appears that Mr Lee’s personal reputation and his past interactions with various countries have coloured the responses and reactions to the book and the acumen contained within.
In China for example, Mr Lee has been regarded as a “mentor to every leader” since Deng Xiaoping . The international media has singled out his praises for new leader Xi Jinping as a “man of great breadth” and that he would “put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons”.
The comparison to the South African icon is nothing new, and has been cited as far back as 2007 . Yet it has found considerable traction in media outlets like Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, China’s SINA news agency and Japan’s The Diplomat.
That Mr Lee makes a case for China modeling its growth partially after Singapore’s own trajectory has also not gone unnoticed. Forbes India in particular carries a guest column by Mr Lee where he argues that Deng’s 1978 visit to Singapore “changed the course of economic policy in the coastal provinces of China”.
Xinhua News Agency has also picked up on Mr Lee’s views on the issue of Taiwan. In particular, it highlights his opinion that “it doesn’t pay” for America and China to clash over Taiwan’s independence, and that “reunification between Taiwan and the mainland is just a matter of time”.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the loudest and fiercest responses to the book have come from our neighbours to the North. Some of Mr Lee’s harsher views on Malaysia have drawn consternation and condemnation from its media and politicians – from both Government and Opposition – alike. Many of the reactions seem to be rooted in the historical animosities between the two countries, particularly when Mr Lee was Singapore’s Prime Minister.
Speaking on Malaysia’s race-based policies and its implications on the brain drain away from the country, Mr Lee writes that “they are prepared to lose that talent in order to maintain the dominance of one race”, adding that 40 per cent of Singapore’s migrants are from Malaysia.
He also dismissed the Opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat as an “opportunistic ad-hoc group not held together by even a vaguely coherent set of ideas but by a common desire to unseat the government”. Mr Lee also added that the “PR will not be able to do away with Malay supremacy”.
The Malaysian Insider describes Mr Lee’s “cutting description” of the coalition as a reflection that the Singapore government “still prefers the status quo in Malaysia” and is “more comfortable dealing with the BN”.
A separate riposte on the same website dismisses Mr Lee’s comments as “overly-pessimistic” and a “depressing assessment”. Douglas Teoh writes that Mr Lee “underestimated the development of the rakyat” which is now “perfectly capable of rational discourse”. As illustrated by the Bersih movement in recent years, Teoh argues, “our sensible people can wield power to advocate reforms from public spheres”.
A sterner critique of Mr Lee’s book by a Malaysian academic describes him as the “father of narrow non-Malay politics” and labels his views as a “lopsided notion”. The author also sounds out Mr Lee’s comments on Malaysia’s brain drain as “hypocritical” and that “maybe he should take a look at his own country”.
Mr Lee’s comments that Malaysia has evolved into a much more orthodox Muslim country since independence – “they toast each other in syrups” – has also irked prominent Malaysians. Former Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad has asked to “give allowance to him” and that he is “entitled to his own opinion” .
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim dismissed Mr Lee’s “sweeping statements” as “obsolete”, “trapped in the old mindset” and representative of “the Mahathir generation”. Karpal Singh – another Malaysian opposition veteran – has criticized Mr Lee’s doubts on Pakatan Rakyat and asked him to “get his own house in order before commenting on others”. Mr Singh also chastises Mr Lee for wanting “to remain as the top voice” and asks him instead to “quietly ride into the sunset”.
It would be misleading however to believe that everyone in Malaysia disagrees with Mr Lee’s judgment of the country. Indeed, a serving Malaysian minister has “agreed there was some truth” in the comments made. Mustapha Mohamed admits that the socio-economic imbalance between races has resulted in some feeling “left out of the country’s development” and deciding to leave the country.
A former Malaysian minister has also chimed in, saying that Malaysia should be “thankful” to Mr Lee for “having successfully wiped out the communists and Chinese chauvinists” who could have “disrupted the peace in Malaysia”.
Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin’s appreciation to Mr Lee for “wiping out the Chinese chauvinists, unlike the Chinese community here” moreover, appears only to confirm the latter’s view that a race-based political culture remains entrenched in Malaysia no matter who governs the country.
Mr Lee’s personal reputation – in particular the oft-conjured image of him being a strict, authoritarian leader – seems to also have influenced international responses to his latest book.
So Murray Hunter of Eurasia Review describes the book as “full of interviews made by Lee’s editorial team”, further calling them “very defensive of his past actions and policies, yet very critical of others”. Hunter goes on to add that the “strong control of Lee Kuan Yew was the dominant driver of society” and that this “persona of authority and control still exists today”.
Indeed, quite a few international media outlets have focused their coverage of the book on Mr Lee’s defence of his own policies, especially with regard to Singapore’s population policies. Another element that has gained traction in the international media are his thoughts on life and death. He will be 90 next month.
Reporting that Mr Lee “feels weaker by the day and wants a quick death”, AFP also claims that he has “visibly weakened” since his wife died in 2010 and that the loss “shattered the normally stoic veteran politician”. The Gulf Times also reports on Mr Lee’s wishes to “make a quick exit” should he reach a stage of incapacitation from which recovery is deemed unlikely.
If the international media coverage on his book is any indication, whether you agree or disagree with the man, or love or hate him, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaks, the world takes notice.
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