3 February 2011
The two octogenarians, visceral adversaries in their younger days and loathing each other still in their dotage, have had an impact on the histories of their countries that will be debated long after they have passed on.
But before they each “go into that good night”, it appears that they are fated – to borrow from lines made famous by the poet Dylan Thomas –to “rage, rage against the dying” of the political order they have each sought to perpetuate.
The other day, the Malaysian controversialist virtually told the Chinese and Indians of the country to accept Malay cultural and political hegemony as a pre-condition of theirs' and the nation's tranquillity.
Barely 30 pages into Lee Kuan Yew's just-released third installment of his memoirs (entitled 'Hard Truths'), you have Singapore's iconic leader telling his interlocutors that though Malaysia's founding premier Tunku Abdul Rahman was “a nice man” with “Chinese friends”, “he (Tunku) and the Malays had to be on top. That's his (Tunku's) vision of social balance.”
Malaysians old enough to remember parliamentary debates of the mid-1960s will recall, from the way the member from Kota Star Selatan and the one from Tanjong Pagar clashed in the Dewan Rakyat when Singapore was briefly part of Malaysia (1963-65), that Mahathir and Lee were destined to be adversaries who would impact their societies, for better or for worse.
azlanIn politics, few things have a higher potency for upheaval than a rivalry that is fed by a conflict of personality and vision.
Examples of this phenomenon are Ferdinand Marcos's rivalry with Benigno Aquino in the Philippines of the late 1970s, Mohamed Ali Jinnah's with Jawaharlal Nehru in pre-independence India; and further afield, Winston Churchill's rivalry with Aneurin Bevan in the Britain of World War Two's immediate aftermath, and Charles de Gaulle's with Francois Mitterrand in the France of the 1960s.
In each case, the antagonists were men of destiny whose political trajectories crossed, with added frisson for the clash of ideology and personality they embodied. Personal antipathy only served to accentuate the one's distaste for the other's methods and philosophy.
NONEYet, for all their differences, there is a curious convergence in Mahathir's and Lee's lack of belief that economic progress and democratic competition can soften social cleavages stemming from racial differences.
To both, race is primeval, an identity not malleable by the emollient influence of economic prosperity, educational advancement, and democratic choice.
Race is like the Freudian 'id', waiting to break out in lurid ways at the merest dent in the tight fit that, in Mahathir's vision, is forged by minority races' compliance with the dominant one's formula for social amity which prescribes appropriate thought and behaviour for the former.
In Lee's vision, race and its potential for turbulence can only be kept in check by a ruling coterie, constantly refreshed in personnel, whose superior quality of governance and unceasing vigilance would ensure that the demons of communalism do not well up from the deep.
With such illiberal views, it's no surprise that both Mahathir and Lee were leaders of authoritarian bent.
Sure, there is a big difference in their impact on their societies.
NONELee has produced a prosperous, if tightly controlled, country, a cynosure of sorts for plural societies wanting to go up the economic ladder.
By contrast, Mahathir has built up Malaysia in infrastructure and emasculated its institutions.
Vastly different though their impacts have been on their countries, both Lee and Mahathir are similarly busy in life's twilight trying to perpetuate and sustain the polities they created.
Through often admirable applications of will and effort, each in their careers strove to shape societies hungry for advancement, securing for their citizens an environment congenial for the satisfaction of human needs.
However, one thing these two pivotal leaders cannot seem to free their selves from: bondage to constricting racial orthodoxies.
At democracy's dawn, its better exponents the world over sought to inspire their peoples with the prospect of a new order of nobility, one not based on the accident of birth – as was the case in feudal societies or in race-based ones that still persist in our times - but on the cultivated excellence of mind and heart, an aristocracy of the spirit to which all are eligible.
The vistas that prospect opened for individual achievement and fulfilment, by their very nature, suggest that race, like biology, can never be destiny.
Leaders who gainsay this wisdom of democracy are horribly obsolete, their visions certain to be repudiated by posterity.