No matter how friendly or unfriendly we are, the passing away of a man you know well saddens you.
I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise.
Kuan Yew became well known at a young age. I was a student in Singapore when I read about his defence of labour unions.
I first met Kuan Yew when I was a member of Parliament in 1964 after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963. We crossed swords many time during the debates. But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation. He included me among the ultra Malays who was responsible for the racial riots in Singapore. Actually I never went to Singapore to stir up trouble. Somebody else whom I would not name did.
The Tunku attended the inaugural meeting of the PAP and was quite friendly with Kuan Yew. He believed Kuan Yew was a bastion against Communism. But when the PAP contested in the Malaysian elections in 1964 with Malaysian Malaysia as its slogan, Tunku felt that the PAP’s presence in Malaysia was going to be disruptive for the country.
When I became PM in 1981, I paid a courtesy call on Kuan Yew. It was a friendly call and he immediately agreed to my proposal that the Malaysia and Singapore times which had always been the same should be advanced by half an hour. I explained that it would be easier adjusting our time when travelling as we would fall within the time zones fixed for the whole world at one hour intervals.
I am afraid on most other issues we could not agree.
When I had a heart attack in 1989 and required open heart surgery, he cared enough to ring up my wife to ask her to delay the operation as he had arranged for the best heart surgeon, a Singaporean living in Australia, to do the operation. But by then, I had been given pre-med and was asleep prior to the operation the next day.
My wife thanked him but apologised. She promised to ring him up after the operation. She did the next evening.
When he was ill, I requested to see him. He agreed but the night before the visit, the Singapore High Commissioner received a message that he was very sick and could not see me.
Still when he attended the Nihon Keizai Shimbun annual conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo, which I never failed to attend, I went up to him at dinner to ask how he was. We sat down together to chat and the Japanese photographers took our pictures promising not to put it in the press. I wouldn’t mind even if they did. But I suppose people will make all kinds of stories about it.
Now Kuan Yew is no more. His passage marks the end of the period when those who fought for independence lead their countries and knew the value of independence.
Asean lost a strong leadership after President Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew.
* Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is former prime minister of Malaysia. This article was originally posted on his personal blog at chedet.cc