"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Monday, June 10, 2019

The Tunku's Anti-Malay Racism and Racial Politics in 1960s Malaya

"Lee would later reflect that Tunku ‘was a nice man’, but nevertheless cautioned that

he was a Prince who understood power and knew how to use it. He did not carry a big stick, but he had many hatchet—bearers who would do the job for him while he looked the other way and appeared as benign as ever.

Syed Jaafar Albar, born in Indonesia of Arab descent, was happy to take on the task of hatchet man...

Attacks on Lee Kuan Yew finally came to a head. In a rabid denunciation of Lee in the federal parliament, the extremist Malay politician Dr Mahathir denounced the PAP as ‘pro-Chinese, communist-oriented and positively anti-Malay’ and compared it unfavourably to the MCA by saying that the PAP Chinese were of ‘the insular, selfish and arrogant type of which Mr. Lee is a good example . . . . They are in fact Chinese first, seeing China as the centre of the world and Malaysia as a very poor second’.

In the Federal Malay Parliament, Lee returned Mahathir’s invective with a brilliantly argued riposte in fluent Malay. Lee’s Malay Cabinet colleague Othman Wok, who was present, recorded the event as one of paramount significance:

The chamber was very quiet and nobody stirred. The Ministers of Central Government sunk down so low in their seats that only their foreheads could be seen over the desks in front of them. The backbenchers were spellbound. They could understand every word. That was the tuming point. They perceived Lee as a dangerous man who could one day be the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Even Tunku, in his autobiography Looking Back (1977), acknowledged that this speech was a turning point, the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’.

The divide was both ideological and personal. Tunku and the UMNO leadership were committed to a form of political ‘apartheid’ in which political parties could only represent their racial communities. UMNO was in the process of constructing a political and economic system which was to be skewed in perpetuity in favour of the ‘bumi’ Malays, against the significant Chinese and Indian minorities. For the Chinese community, the trade-off would be political stability and the liberty to engage in entrepreneurial activity albeit at a cost in terms of Malay ‘special rights’.

This was not a political structure that Lee could tolerate...

An augury of what was to come was the ultra- nationalist election campaigning of the emerging Dr Mahathir in 1965 who, in addition to bizarrely attacking Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘socialist doctrines’, also hypocritically accused him of ‘Chinese chauvinism’

Also on a personal level, Lee found himself at odds with the leadership of UMNO. Abdul Razak bin Hussein had been in the same year as Lee at Raffles College, but they had not been friends. Lee explained that ‘He was a member of the Malay aristocracy of Penang.’ Though Lee was a Malay speaker, as a Chinese man of relatively humble origins, he was more comfortable in the company of commoners. The discomfort was probably felt on both sides. A Malay friend from Kedah confided to Lee that ‘You Chinese are too energetic and clever for us . . . we cannot stand the pressure.’ In a bizarre piece of self—deprecation and logic, Tunku would argue in the 1960s that ‘. . . because they, the Malays, are not very clever and not good at business, they must be in charge of government departments, the police and the army’.

Intellectually, Lee was in a different league to his Malay political adversaries. By his own admission, Tunku, who was also at Cambridge reading law, spent his time in England on ‘slow’ horses and ‘fast’ women. He got on well with the high Tories such as the aristocratic Douglas Home and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who described him as ‘like a Spanish grandee. That’s his world’. Lee noted with some amusement that Tunku was practically given a degree at Cambridge because he was so lazy and intellectually ill- adept; Tunku also spent six years trying to pass his bar exams. Lee was simply too smart for his Malay political opponents; this alone might not have mattered had Lee not also possessed a public charisma and above all an iron will."

--- Empires at War: A Short History of Modern Asia Since World War II / Francis Pike


If Lee Kuan Yew was racist, does this mean the Tunku was too?

There is an interesting parallel with modern identity politics, where racial equality is somehow equated to racism.
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