Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as prime minister of Singapore on June 5, 1959, when Singapore then was a self-governing state within the British Commonwealth.
When the Federation of Malaysia was established in 1963, Lee ushered Singapore into the newly created Federation. His party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), was his strong political base after it overcame some internal problems.
In 1964, PAP (with 75 percent Chinese membership) took part in Malaysian national elections based on Lee’s decision. Lee’s belief in multiracialism apparently was viewed differently by the Malay politicians.
In August 1965, Lee was told by his Malaysian colleagues in the federal government that Singapore had to leave the federation.
An Australian journalist friend who covered the event remembered that Lee with tears on his face softly said to the few reporters present: “We are on our own now.” My friend also noted the determination in Lee’s voice. It is helpful to remember the context of that event, which made the situation faced by Lee and his colleagues challenging indeed.
Former president Sukarno who at that stage showed clear indications of megalomania considered the formation of the Federation of Malaysia as Great Britain’s imperialist stratagem to encircle the Republic of Indonesia because of his anti-Western attitude.
Sukarno declared what he referred to as Konfrontasi, or confrontation, which in reality was launching a series of military operations against Malaysia and the recently independent Singapore.
Lee was indeed very much relieved to see the gradual changes happening in Jakarta after the failed communist party coup on Oct. 1, 1965. Perhaps it took the same time for Lee to comprehend the actions of the newly emerging leader in Jakarta, gen. Soeharto, because of his unmilitaristic decisions.
He abolished the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), called for an end to all military operations against Malaysia and Singapore and reactivated Indonesia’s membership at the United Nations.
And as acting president since 1967, Soeharto made approaches to Western countries that were willing to provide economic aid to Indonesia, which slowly recovered from a chaotic economic mess with 600 percent inflation thanks to Sukarno’s revolutionary outbursts.
In other words, unintentionally, there was a parallel of action and purpose between Singapore’s Lee and Indonesia’s Soeharto. Lee was determined to transform Singapore as a modern state with a sophisticated economy. The end of Konfrontasi made his job easier. And Soeharto quietly made repairing Indonesia’s broken economy his top priority, along with providing basic necessities to the ordinary people that had suffered for so long.
Books have been written to describe the Singapore miracle that became the modern hub of Southeast Asia under the leadership of Lee. Indonesia and Singapore’s other neighbors benefit from the modern services that Singapore is able to provide so efficiently.
On the other hand, Singapore’s rapid modernization would have been difficult to achieve without political stability in Southeast Asia.
That’s why the establishment of the ASEAN on Aug. 8, 1967, in Bangkok was such an impressive political achievement.
The situation in 1967 was hardly conducive to promote regional cooperation. True, Konfrontasi was terminated. But there was still lingering suspicion among Indonesia’s neighbors. They were perhaps puzzled to see a military leader with so much combat experience pushing for regional cooperation.
It was Lee that from the outset, perhaps based on his fine political instinct, perceived Soeharto as a potential regional leader that would opt for regional cooperation and social economic development.
In August 1967, five foreign ministers gathered in Bangkok to discuss the need for regional cooperation. They were Adam Malik (Indonesia), Tun Abdul Razak (Malaysia), Narciso Ramos (the Philippines), S. Rajaratnam (Singapore) and Thanat Khoman (Thailand).
They were personalities with differing backgrounds and political views. Nevertheless, they were convinced that only a stable Southeast Asia, free from external interference, with their countries linked with each other in a regional organization would ensure the future of their respective countries.
Indonesian diplomats who were members of the Indonesian delegation told me about the hardworking Singapore delegation whose drafting skills in English was instrumental to produce the 1967 Bangkok declaration on the establishment of ASEAN.
It is not that difficult to speculate that prime minister Lee instructed his delegation that for the sake of Singapore’s future and the stability of Southeast Asia, the meeting must be successful. Only a stable and cooperating Southeast Asia would create a secure geopolitical environment to ensure Singapore’s progress.
Lee became convinced that Indonesia, under Soeharto’s leadership, would act constructively. After all, as the largest archipelago state, Indonesia too requires a stable Southeast Asia.
Considering the fluid situation in 1967 (it was the beginning of the third Vietnam War), one has to marvel reading the following paragraph as part of the Preamble of the ASEAN declaration in Bangkok, Aug. 8, 1967:
“Considering that the countries of Southeast Asia share a primary responsibility for strengthening the economic and social stability of the region and ensuring their peaceful and progressive development, and that they are determined to ensure their stability and security from external interference in any form or manifestation in order to preserve their national identities in accordance with the ideals and aspirations of their peoples.”
This paragraph encapsulates the ASEAN spirit. Lee’s farsightedness was instrumental that despite of all sorts of problems affecting the countries of Southeast Asia regional cooperation under the umbrella of ASEAN is still functioning.
Singaporeans should be proud to have a great statesman and a true leader such as the late Lee. We in Indonesia too acknowledge Bapak Lee Kuan Yew’s achievement as a true regional leader.
The writer,Sabam Siagian, is a senior editor of The Jakarta Post. He interviewed the late Lee Kuan Yew several times.