Yawning Bread. October 2006

The apology that wasn't




After 2 weeks of grumbling in Malaysian circles, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew sent a letter of apology [1] to Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi over the matter of his remarks about Singapore's "neighbours". In it, Lee apologised for causing the Malaysian PM "a great deal of discomfort. "

"After a decade of troubled relations with your predecessor, it is the last thing I wanted."

What was most notable from the letter was that Lee did not retract the remarks that he had made at a dialogue session with former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Many foreign delegates attending the annual IMF and World Bank meetings had been in the audience. There, Lee had touched on the impulses behind the Malaysian and Indonesian governments' attitudes towards Singapore.

'Let me sum it up nicely, why you must have a government in Singapore which is really firm, stout-hearted, subtle and resolute. My neighbours both have problems with their Chinese. They are successful, they are hardworking and, therefore, they are systematically marginalised, even in education. There are quotas to prevent you. So, you've got to make money to go abroad or go to one of the private universities which are being set up. And they want Singapore, to put it simply, to be like their Chinese, compliant.'

-- Letter from Lee Kuan Yew to Abdullah
Badawi, 29 September 2006, quoting the
remarks verbatim that he had made in
the dialogue session with Larry Summers.

From the Malaysian side, many of the grouses were centred on Lee's interfering with their domestic politics through remarks such as these. At the same time, there was denial that the ethnic Chinese minorities in those countries were marginalised as Lee described.

The most striking thing about Lee's letter to Badawi was how he pointed to former Malaysian PM Mahathir as the leading instigator of such racial politics. In the quite substantial annex to the letter, Lee listed numerous instances of Malaysian politicians from 1998 to September 2006 speaking of how Singaporean Malays have been marginalised. By this, he was telling the Malaysians they were no more than the pot calling the kettle black.

On numerous occasions UMNO leaders, including Dr Mahathir and many others, have publicly warned Malaysian Malays that if they ever lose power, they risk the same fate as Malays in Singapore, whom they allege are marginalised and discriminated against (see Annex*). And from time to time, when Malaysian politicians attack Singapore fiercely over some bilateral issue, some of them tell us privately that we should just accept this as part of Malaysian politics and not react to these attacks.

Singapore understands the reality of Malaysian politics. We have never protested at these attacks on our multiracial system or our policies, except to clarify our own position when necessary.

-- Letter from Lee Kuan Yew to Abdullah
Badawi, 29 September 2006

Lee's observations about how Malay Malaysian politicians view Singapore through the filter of their own country's race relations are spot on. He has said so time and again. Yawning Bread agrees with this reading and has said so in previous articles here.

The problem though is that many Malaysians (and Indonesians) are sensitive to such remarks. They dislike hearing such analyses. So every time Lee, revelling in his role as a sagacious senior statesman, makes such comments, our foreign ministry and diplomatic corps have to scramble to contain the damage.

This, despite the fact that, as Lee clarified to Abdullah Badawi, the remarks were intended for "a liberal audience of westerners" as well as to "explain to our people the root cause of these difficulties in our bilateral relations."

Yet, of course, as this incident shows, one cannot expect reportage of such remarks to go unnoticed.

This is where Lee is caught out straddling two horses. If he wants the freedom to be brutally honest, he needs to uncouple himself from the government, so that his remarks are his personal ones, and not drag our diplomats into them. The nature of diplomacy and external relations is such that those who represent Singapore need to know when to hold their tongue.

Otherwise, Lee should leave it to those outside government to make these points. Academics and independent commentators are better placed to say such things to liberal Westerners and fellow Singaporeans, for their edification, without rocking our own government's diplomatic relations.

But of course, this comes up against two realities. Firstly, does the government trust independent commentators? Or do they, by force of habit, try to marginalise them, thereby reducing their impact, and thereby leaving no one but Lee Kuan Yew to speak the brutal truth effectively?

Secondly, what channels are available to independent commentators to be reported widely, in order for their words to have impact? If there is only the Straits Times that carries their commentaries or their speeches, then the Malaysians may still get upset, claiming, not without justification, that the newspaper is a government mouthpiece. Hence, remarks about Malaysia highlighted in the newspaper must have been endorsed by the Singapore government.

The tight control that the Singapore government loves to have is thus shown once again to be hurting Singapore's interests. We are left with no one else and no other means to educate our population about political realities but the government ministers themselves. Yet, ministers aren't free to pass frank comments without diplomatic consequences.

When a truthful observation is strongly identified with a partisan (People's Action Party's) interest, rather than be seen as coming from Singaporeans at large, the credibility of that observation is hurt.

That attempt to identify it with the PAP is also evident in Lee's comments in the same dialogue session. He told his audience,

I was explaining to a liberal audience of Westerners who wanted to see a stronger opposition in Singapore, why Singapore needs a strong majority government, not a weak coalition that will hamper us in defending our national interests.

Singapore needs a strong government to maintain good relations with Indonesia and Malaysia, and to interact with Indonesian and Malaysian politicians who consider Singapore to be Chinese, and expect Singapore to be 'sensitive' and comply with their requests.

-- Letter from Lee Kuan Yew to Abdullah
Badawi, 29 September 2006

It is not logically coherent. You don't need a "strong majority government" to speak up for the national interest. What you do need is a strong feeling of national cohesion among the people. With that, the government of the day, even a coalition one, can be just as "stout-hearted" and "resolute". Having a strong opposition in parliament doesn't mean they will oppose everything the government does for the sake of opposing. There is such a thing as a loyal opposition, meaning an opposition that is equally concerned about the national interest.

Having said that, one of Singapore's opposition parties in the last general election made a very poor show of itself. The Singapore Democratic Alliance, as I recall, adopted the position that the solution to our economic ills lay in forming a common market with Malaysia. This was such an unrealistic idea - and even if it wasn't, Singapore and Malaysia together would still be such a tiny market compared to the US, China, India, Europe or Japan, that it would offer no economic boost at all - that I was left wondering if the SDA knew anything at all about governing.

But again, one has to trust the people. In the end, the SDA didn't do well in the polls, despite the exceptional performance of Chiam See Tong in his Potong Pasir constituency. Outside of Potong Pasir, the party polled 137,383 votes (31.7%) against 295,677 votes (68.3%) cast for the PAP.

If we want to be assured that Singaporeans will pull together, then we have to let our domestic politics mature. We have to trust that sensible voices will emerge, reminding ourselves, for example, that as much as we dislike the Malaysians using Singapore as a punching bag, we too must be watchful that we don't respond tit for tat. We too must be conscious of how we treat fellow Singaporeans who happen to be Malay.

I personally have no doubt that in the end, Singaporeans will pull together, and we'd do so more, if only the government would let up. Look at how we cringe when asked by the government to hang out the flag around National Day, yet the gay volleyball team proudly waved the red-and-white when no one asked them to [2].

Listen to how Imran Johri spoke about feeling Singaporean, proud to serve in the army too, even though he's ethnically Malay and based in Kuala Lumpur. He was speaking at Talking Cock in Parliament, the closing event of Indignation, Singapore's gay and lesbian Pride season.

Let up. Let our independent voices speak, and we will mature as a nation. They will do a better job than Lee Kuan Yew playing the stern master, in which process, becoming a lightning rod for flak from our neighbours.

Yawning Bread 



  1. See appendix Lee Kuan Yew's letter to Abdullah Badawi 
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  2. See the article Volleyball team does Singapore proud 
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