The Straits Times
June 22, 2009

Cease that unbecoming smugness
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's eight-day visit to Malaysia continues to draw widespread commentary in the Malaysian media. Today, we run an article that appeared in

By Tunku Abdul Aziz
I BEGIN with a confession. I may be fairly described as a dyed in the wool admirer of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Minister Mentor. I am pleased that his recent visit to Malaysia went well. He was received as an honoured visitor, in grand palaces and everywhere else he went, as well he should, because he undoubtedly played an important and historic role in the creation of Malaysia as a political entity. That is a historical fact.

I am glad that Mr Lee gave Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad a wide berth. It would have left a bad taste in the mouth if he had asked to meet the bitter old man of Malaysian politics. Dr Mahathir could have been relied upon to be obnoxious and boorish as only he knows how.

His reference to Mr Lee as the little emperor from a small Middle Kingdom is vintage Dr Mahathir, dripping with venom and uncharitable innuendoes. The man is a total disgrace to the Malay sense of gracious hospitality and traditional decorum.
I suppose the kindest thing to do would be to ignore Dr Mahathir and let him continue to entertain the sad fantasy that he is an indispensable part of Malaysia's process of governance.

Mr Lee is far from perfect. His record on human rights and media freedom is well documented, and there is not a great deal to choose between his record and Malaysia's. We should wipe off that feeling of smugness.
On balance, though, Mr Lee runs a tight ship and Singapore's pre-eminent position as a modern, affluent and corruption-free society owes entirely to his vision and his determination. What he has achieved for his country in the face of hopelessly impossible challenges says a great deal about his single-minded devotion to duty and the public interest. Enriching himself or his family has never been part of his game plan.

He has never wavered in his belief that corruption, humanity's greatest curse, was not going to be a feature of Singapore's governance model. His administration is both clean and efficient, and Singapore's economy is among the most competitive in the world.

While Malaysians wallow in corruption and are buffeted daily by one financial scam after another, the 'Little Red Dot' - the highly offensive name former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie gave Singapore - continues to notch one accolade after another. Singapore has shown that size does not matter.

I am often asked the reason for my being such a loyal Lee Kuan Yew fan. As I have said, he is not without a blemish or two. But no man has done more to curb corruption in public life as he has. Singapore has benefited enormously from this in reputational terms. Investors know that their investments are safer in Singapore than in many other jurisdictions because Singapore operates a justice system that is incorruptible.

It has succeeded in curbing corruption to a degree that has rarely been achieved elsewhere in Asia, except possibly Hong Kong. Singapore does not need a bloated anti-corruption bureaucracy such as we have with our ineffectual Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission that is a drain on public funds.

But what Singapore has in large measure is political will. When we think of Singapore before Mr Lee, what comes to mind was a place that was a corrupt colonial backwater, filthy, ugly and smelly.

Today, Singapore has shown the world that by confronting corruption decisively, and by putting in place systems and policies to make unethical public behaviour a high risk and low return business, a country will become competitive. How does Malaysia fare by comparison?

The government, in spite of protestations to the contrary, tolerates corruption in all its manifestations. I am not just talking about money changing hands. That is bribery. But equally insidious is bending the rules and exploiting loopholes with a view to defrauding the nation's coffers.

The Port Klang Free Zone scandal is a case in point. Yet we are being told to move on without any of the perpetrators in the scandal being called to account for their part in this multibillion-ringgit swindle.

The government must do its duty in ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice. A scandal of this order of magnitude, even for a country such as Malaysia that is so used to living cheek by jowl with grand corruption on a daily basis, beggars the imagination. We wait with bated breath to see what Prime Minister Najib Razak will do in this case. Or is he no different from his predecessors Dr Mahathir and Tun Abdullah Badawi?

Through sheer force of character, and leading by example, Mr Lee has been able to make a difference in the lives of his people. Singapore is able today to punch way above its weight. It is a respected name - human rights non-governmental organisations may disagree - and I for one wish Singapore well in its relentless fight against man's most debilitating social ill.

The writer was the former vice-chairman of Transparency International's board of directors and founder of the Malaysian Chapter of Transparency International.