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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

WAR OF WORDS

The Senior Minister's controversial new book takes aim at Malaysia's founding fathers.
The reaction across the Causeway is predictable

By Alejandro Reyes


Excerpts The Senior Minister on racial issues, cross-straits politics and his early life

Response A son replies to criticism of his father

LEE KUAN YEW KNOWS how troubling it can be to look back. To write his memoirs, working into the early morning for three years, Singapore's founding father pored over minutes of meetings, letters, official cables and more than 900 briefing papers prepared by a team of researchers. The man who served as the republic's prime minister from 1959 to 1990 reached back into his memory to recall episodes from early childhood. "It was psychological stocktaking," Lee, now Senior Minister, writes in the preface to the 680-page first volume of The Singapore Story, published on Sept. 16, "and I was surprised how disturbing it was occasionally although these events were past and over with."

Lee can hardly have been surprised by reaction to his book, however - particularly from Malaysia. Ties between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are especially testy these days, and when extracts from the book appeared in Singapore's Straits Times three days before the official launch, Malaysian leaders were predictably apoplectic. The extracts dealt with perhaps the most contentious section of Lee's memoirs: Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965. Thirty-three years on, the debate is still raging about who did what to precipitate that painful parting of ways.

Typically, Lee's detailed autobiography pulls no punches. It is far removed from previously published accounts of his life, which were sanitized rather than candid. Here we see Lee truly unrestrained. He accuses senior figures from Malaysia's dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) of engineering bloody riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays in Singapore in 1964. He describes the Malaysian leadership, including revered founding father and first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, as "pleasure loving."

In one anecdote, Lee refers to a hobnobbing session he and then deputy Goh Keng Swee had with the Tunku and other Malaysian leaders in Kuala Lumpur, playing poker. "But as soon as the girls arrived," Lee writes, "Keng Swee and I pleaded pressing engagements and made ourselves scarce." Lee also alleges that, in a conversation with a British diplomat, the Tunku warned that, after Separation, Kuala Lumpur might shut off water supply to Singapore if it proved recalcitrant.

"It's a very frank account of Lee's perception of what happened," says Khoo Kay Kim, a historian at the University of Malaya. "But it seems very untimely because we've had one problem after another with Malaysia-Singapore relations. Surely the right approach for both sides is to work towards cooperation rather than perpetual disagreement."

Good luck. On Sept. 14, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad acidly criticized Lee's comments, calling them typical of the Singapore government's tendency to raise old issues and hit Malaysia when it is down. "What we can do is to also accuse them of having tried to create racial unrest because before Singapore joined Malaysia [in 1963] the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians had worked together to secure Independence," said Mahathir. He argued that after joining the Federation, Singapore raised racial sentiments by pushing its "Malaysian Malaysia" line and that this led to race riots across the peninsula in 1969. "Singapore does not seem to be sensitive. I feel that if Singapore wants to make peace, they should not raise such old issues. It's no use."

Other Malaysian politicians have been quick to leap into the fray. "The book merely reflects one man's highly partisan interpretation of history," railed UMNO deputy youth chief Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. "Selective in its use of sources and deeply biased in its arguments, the book is merely a tool for self-aggrandizement." After a Cabinet meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Information Minister Mohamed Rahmat said: "We thought after we kicked them out, he [Lee] would be more responsible. But it seems like Singapore really does not want to remain on good terms with Malaysia and has on many occasions tried to undermine us."

On the eve of publication, Lee held a press conference at Singapore's Istana. Noting Mahathir's criticism, he defended his decision to publish his memoirs and his account of events. "I set out to give young Singaporeans an objective account of why and how Singapore sought merger with Malaya but in two years was asked to leave Malaysia," he said in an opening statement. He had been working on the manuscript for three years. "It is simply not true that I have chosen to publish my book when Malaysia is in difficulties to take advantage of it. Indeed, publishing my book at this time is a disadvantage, because people have less money to buy my books." Lee added that he had checked archival records, including documents in Britain that were made available in 1995, after the traditional 30-year limit on confidentiality had expired. "I expected my book to be scrutinized and criticized. If there are false or untrue statements, I will stand contradicted and my credibility demolished."

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