House of M(ahathir)

Frogs, your time has come!
(From "Mahathir: Next Pond")

Magnetic Mahathir. Commenting on Minister Mentor Mr. Lee Kuan Yew as "a big frog in a small pond", I'm just wondering how Dr Mahathir Mohamad thinks of himself. One possibility just jumps out of my mind: Dr Mahathir is "a small frog in a big pond". Oh well...

PS. The title of the post is inspired from Marvel's eight-issue comic book limited series, "House of M".

“He’s a big frog in a small pond.”

That is what Dr Mahathir Mohamad thinks of Singapore’s founding father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

In the book ‘Doctor M: Operation Malaysia’, the country’s former leader was also quoted describing Mr Lee as someone who is not satisfied with what he has.

But despite being at loggerheads with Mr Lee for more than 20 years, Dr Mahathir had to admit that Lee “will go down in history as a very remarkable intellectual and a politician at the same time, which is not a very often thing.”

On the other hand, Lee graciously acknowledged Mahathir as an “outstanding” prime minister of Malaysia, adding that the latter educated his people and sent many of them abroad on scholarships and who in turn transformed the country.

“During his premiership of over 20 years, he changed Malaysia from an agricultural, placid society into an industrial, dynamic society,” said Mr Lee as quoted in cover leaf of the same book.

As the author of the book, professor Tom Plate, veteran journalist-turned-academic, was in town, I took the opportunity to have a one-on-one interview with him to talk about the two long-time rivals.

In ‘Doctor M: Operation Malaysia’, Mr Plate chronicled the experiences of Malaysia’s fourth and former premier, someone who was infamous for his disdain of the Western media as well as for his controversial and outspoken views on Israel and the Jews.:

Mr Plate had also written a book on Singapore’s own former long-time premier titled ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’ which was launched in May last year. The book touches on Lee’s views on issues such as his “authoritarianism”, and reveals details of his personal family life.

The book together with that on Mahathir is part of the ‘Giants of Asia’ series which recounts the stories of some of the brightest but yet also controversial leaders in Asia.

Similarities between LKY and Dr Mahathir?

Describing both ‘Giants of Asia’ as two peas in the proverbial pod, Mr Plate pointed out that they actually have much in common despite their sometimes cold relationship.

In his latest book, Mr Plate said they relish making painful decisions, work out almost daily for their health and profess similar social-Darwinian views.

Apart from that, he noted that Lee and Mahathir are Asian evangelists who consistently and stoutly defend Asian values but are also welcoming towards multinational investments.

“They often lecture their countrymen like schoolmarms, prioritize education and champion a sweltering, non-stop work ethic,” Mr Plate said.

In the interview with Yahoo! Singapore, Mr Plate also highlighted the difference in the intensity of the men.

Comparing Lee to that of the dean of academic studies, the author said that he is extremely articulate, has a penetrating mind and is very careful with his language.

“There is just no sloppiness to Lee Kuan Yew. He is very structured and doesn’t easily go off message when discuss about an issue.”

But you might be surprised that as rigid as Lee might appear to be, Mr Plate said that he has a very good sense of humour. Even Lee himself might agree with this assessment. In the book, Lee acknowledged that while he would not call himself “fun-loving” or “light-hearted”, he is not serious all the time.

“Everyone needs to have a good laugh now and then, to see the funny side of things, and to laugh at himself,” Lee said.

On the other hand, Mahathir was described as a slightly “looser” individual who would often crack jokes. But this, Mr Plate said, is not for the better or worse.

“Because of this, it is easier for one to underestimate the intelligence of Mahathir than Lee Kuan Yew because of the differences in style,” he said. “But Mahathir is nobody’s fool, he is still very sharp even at 85.”

The West can learn from LKY

Talking of Singapore’s founding father alone, Mr Plate had also much to say.

“The West can learn a lot from Lee Kuan Yew,” said the author, who also noted that it might not be feasible to transplant the Singapore system which works for about five million people to a country such as the United States.

Still, he gave Lee credit for the country’s impressive meritocratic system and its public service which “America has lost a little bit”.

Describing Lee as a “global geo-political guru”, he said that the Western media generally thinks of him as a “hard authoritarian”. Perhaps this was borne out of the fact that Singapore has consistently been described as a ‘Nanny state’ and also because of the nation’s strict laws such as caning and the ban on chewing gum.

While he admitted that it was a struggle for the American media to move away from that stereotype now, Mr Plate claimed that there has been an “appreciation” of Lee though it “took too long” for the media to recognize the former leader’s achievements.

Going back to a comparison of the two former premiers, Mr Plate said it is hard to gauge the success of governance of one against the other.

Since both men held power almost during the same time, although Mr Lee became prime minister much earlier and Dr Mahathir stepping down a later date, it is easy for others to rush and compare the achievements and legacies of both these heavyweight champions.

While Singapore might be more successful, Malaysia is roughly five times the size and population of Singapore, Mr Plate said.

“So the control environment is messier. But they are both leaders in their parties, and both are what we used the term in America soft authoritarianism to describe their styles”

When asked what he meant by ‘Giants in Asia’, Mr Plate says, “They are larger than life personalities that by looking and talking to them, that they can illuminate their time and their area of the world and how their area will fit in the rest of the globe. That’s really what it’s about. It’s a way of a magical mystery tour through Asia.”

From Yahoo! Fit to Post, "What do MM Lee and Dr Mahathir think of each other?".