Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tale of two leaders

The elder statesmen of Singapore and Malaysia have had very different fate since they gave up power willingly.

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, 83, continues to be a dominant figure in the tiny island. He has retained a portfolio in the cabinet to help oversee the development of the country although he stepped down as Singapore's longest-serving PM in 1990.

He has just wrapped up his trip of Europe and the United States, becoming the first Southeast Asian leader to be conferred the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service.

Kuan Yew also toured gaming capital Las Vegas and met with US President George Bush at the White House.

In short, Kuan Yew continues to be feted.

Across the causeway, the story is rather different.

Former Malaysian PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 81, has been a lonelier figure since he stepped down as the country's longest-serving leader in 2003.

After keeping relatively quiet in the first two years, he shocked many when he unleashed his full fury on successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi six months ago.

Badawi's decision, among other things, to shelve the bridge project to replace the Causeway to Singapore was the proverbial last straw for Dr M. Although some of his criticisms are valid, many feel he should have kept quiet after his retirement. Or he should not have given up all his political and government posts in order to provide a better check on the government.

The bickering culminated in a so-called peace talk over the weekend. But Dr M continued to chastise Badawi soon after the meeting. Nobody knows how the political drama in Malaysia will unfold.

Kuan Yew and Dr M are both strong personalities. They have helped their respective countries progress beyond the call of duty. They both relish being the Asian voice in their straight-talking manner. They have both secured their place in history, although Dr M's legacy is being unraveled.

Despite their stature, it is sad that the two leaders have not been able to work together to resolve all the differences between the two governments.

Malaysia will continue to sell cheap water to Singapore until 2061, Malaysian railway land in Singapore will remain undeveloped, Singapore is barred from using Malaysian airspace or buying Malaysian sand for reclamation, and the 83-year-old causeway continues to be the umbilical cord connecting the two countries.

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