The Western world almost completely controls our perceptions of events, leaders and of history itself. A fresh reminder of this travesty is provided by the latest bestseller that stares at you from the display shelves of bookstores across Malaysia : A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The West has spread the impression that Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew is Asia's outstanding economic miracle man while Malaysia's Mahathir as a cantankerous ogre, hater of white people and dictator to boot. Both are dressed up portraits. Actually Mahathir is the real miracle man of Southeast Asia.
The Singaporean, scion of a rich and anglophile family, (he was named Harry Lee Kuan Yew, his brothers Dennis and Freddy), developed into a Cambridge-educated intellectual, at home in think-tank circles in the UK and US, and savvy enough to get a BBC man to give him private lessons on how to conduct himself before a camera. The Malay, son of a poor school teacher, never went beyond Singapore to complete his medical education and remained proud of his traditional Malay values. When he confronted double-speak and double standards, he made no attempt to hide his resentment. If he felt he was on the side of righteousness, he didn't care who was offended. It was easy for the West, self-serving as ever, to adopt Kuan Yew as one of its own, and reject Mahathir as an oriental potentate.
Kuan Yew, Prime Minister for 31 years (mentor thereafter) and Mahathir, Prime Minister for 22 years (retired thereafter) naturally had to deal with each other. In his civilised but no-nonsense style Mahathir describes it as “a civil relationship, not a friendship”. There was a brief interlude when Singapore became part of Malaysia. As Mahathir puts it, “Malaysia was a real country, not a city-state, and to become Prime Minister of Malaysia would satisfy [Lee's] ambitions, especially for power and a more than municipal role.” He adds that in the campaign to win support in Malaysia, Lee “revealed himself as a racist”. He also refers to Lee's party PAP using its “characteristic bullying tactics” during campaign rallies. “People who tried to heckle the PAP speakers had powerful spotlights turned on them. The effect was dramatic”. That was the least bullying of PAP's bullying tactics.
These historically revealing details, however, are no more than sidelights. The core of the Mahathir story is the scale of one man's achievements for his country in the span of two decades. Old timers can still remember Kuala Lumpur as an overgrown village with just one five-star hotel and one main thoroughfare through which all traffic and all commerce passed. Yet there wasn't much traffic jam because there wasn't much traffic.
Mahathir turned that village into a glittering global metropolis. In central KL the traffic jam is terrible these days, but that is inspite of Mahathir landmarks like a monorail, a light rail transit, commuter trains, multilayered flyover networks and expressway systems in addition to the famous airport express train. The airport itself is still a pleasant shock to those who can remember the sleepy old Subang airport. Today's KL vies with Singapore and Shanghai.
Mahathir also converted Malaysia from a rubber-and-rice agricultural economy to an industrial economy. His own special pride is that his modernisation drive transformed the social attitudes of the Malay people from servitude to self-assurance. He still criticises his people for not working hard enough and for lacking commercial acumen. A devout Muslim, he also attacks the idea of taking more than one wife. He abhors fanaticism and condemns “the growing problem of deviant teachings among Muslims in Malaysia”.
What makes Mahathir special is that while pursuing economic progress he never lost sight of the larger picture of human values. That cannot be said of Lee Kuan Yew and certainly not of Indonesia's Suharto or Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra. In sheer vision terms, Mahathir Mohamad has only Deng Hsiaoping in his league.
(T.J.S. George is the author of Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore published by Andre Deutsch, London, in 1973).