Lee had invited six young newspaper editors, all in their
late 30s or early 40s, to exchange views on developments in Malaysia and Singapore.
It was past lunch time but the discussion,
supposed to be over tea, was now running
behind schedule as last-minute appointments were squeezed in.
Lee, with a reputation for being intimidating and intellectually arrogant,
however turned out to be pleasantly
All the journalists were meeting him for
the first time and that they had heard
enough stories of him expecting the media to know their background details well.
Taking bites at the sweet duku langsat on
the table, he was courteous, attentive and even apologetic at times during the off-the
record talk where both sides challenged the
views of each other.
It was clear that Kuala Lumpur's changing
skyline, well-connected highways and even the thorny bilateral issues, weren't the
only things on the elder stateman's
Issues dividing Malaysia and Singapore
include Malaysia's supply of water to Singapore, relocation of customs
and immigration facilities for Malaysian
rail passengers in Singapore and the
withdrawal of Malaysian funds from the
island republic's pension scheme.
Making his first visit to Malaysia after 10
years, this writer could not help concluding, rightly or wrongly, that Lee wanted to
listen to the views of young Malaysians
on his neighbour's political
He is, after all, clear on how his peers felt
in building Malaysia. He has personally
known all the Malaysian prime ministers, including Datuk Seri Dr
Lee acknowledged that during the 1970s,
when he knew Dr Mahathir was going to be
prime minister, he invited him to Singapore on several occasions and the two
established a personal relationship.
He said there was an emotional binding
because Dr Mahathir studied in Singapore
and regularly returned for university reunions.
In the case of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad
Badawi, he is certainly no stranger to Lee after having served in the Cabinet for
so many years including as Foreign
But Lee's concern appears to be the political sentiments of young Malaysians,
particularly the Malays, who have been drawn to
the religious struggles of PAS.
The Islamist party has become a serious
player in the political landscape with only moderate Muslims and non-Muslims keeping them
from becoming more influential.
The predominantly Chinese population of
Singapore, as is its brethren in Malaysia, is understandably alarmed over the growing influence of PAS and its controversial
“But I would sleep more comfortable with
Umno in power as it is a party I have known since the 1940s,'' he told a press
If that is not disturbing enough, Singapore
has to live dangerously with the political, economical, religious and ethnic troubles
in Indonesia as well.
The jail sentence of Datuk Seri Anwar
Ibrahim and whether he still has a future political role must have also
been in Lee's thoughts.
Lee said he felt sorry for Dr Mahathir for
paying a “very heavy price'' in the sacking of Anwar and the subsequent events.
His private appointments did not just include the newspaper editors but also
members of think-tanks. These meetings would
have allowed Lee to have a better understanding of events from a
The aspirations of the younger set, from
the various influential sectors, are necessary because they will help
shape the destiny of the country in the coming years.
Like Singapore, the days of providing jobs,
houses and basic amenities by the government are no longer something
which the citizens are expected to be grateful for. It is the job of the government, nothing more.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has the
task of providing a higher standard of living for Singaporeans.
The next prime minister, as in both countries, would have to deal with a
different group of demanding citizens
with little sense of their country's
traumatic history. It would probably
matter little to them.
They would expect their leaders to allow
them greater democratic space, be more accountable and, at the same
time, maintain a decent economic growth
In the case of Malaysia, where the issues
are more complex, material development
alone may not be enough.
Malaysia and Singapore may be different
entities but we are mirror images of each other, as Lee would probably say.
His visit will help him prepare the next
prime minister to handle the Malaysian government. That appears to be
the crux of the whole trip.