‘Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir are like two peas in a pod’

TODAY senior reporter Ansley Ng speaks to author Tom Plate, who is in Singapore to launch his book ‘Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad’, the second in his Giants of Asia Series. The book is based on almost 10 hours of interviews with the former Malaysian Prime Minister. The other book in the Giants of Asia series is ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’.

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What sort of impression did Dr Mahathir leave on you?

He thinks and acts boldly. He doesn’t make a fool of himself, he is not really a riverboat gambler. But he knows that you can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs. The reason you have a Prime Minister is to have somebody make a decision, and he’s comfortable doing that.

For example, to him, Proton – which everybody looked at as a business negative – was a positive. What he wanted out of it was a psychological spin, the idea that ‘Yes, we can’.

Singapore can have a lot of things, but the last thing it can do is to have its own car industry.

As it turns out, neither can Malaysia, but in his view, it could stimulate so many other things – energise the economy, move it away from the agricultural dimension.

He’s very tough-minded and in some ways similar to Lee Kuan Yew. For all the brouhaha, they are – in some ways – two peas in a pod.

That is one reason why there are always in these public jousts. They are like two people who got a bitter divorce, but have to live next to one another in the same apartment building. They bump into the other in the hall, in the elevator … it would be better if one of them moved to Latin America.

Did he have anything nice to say about Singapore?

He said some nice things about Lee Kuan Yew, which several people had a heart attack over.

At one point, he said (Lee) is a very remarkable political intellectual. But I think the reason for the intensity of the antagonism is because of the psychological depth of the mutual respect. It’s like two prized fighters … who respect one another.

Did Dr Mahathir say what he meant by remarkable?

He did not but I think I know what he meant.

The British get up every day thinking we are lucky things don’t get worse, that kind of world weary attitude.

Lee Kuan Yew gets up every day thinking why can’t the world be better? The idea that you can try and create an utopia in the real world.

I think Mahathir recognises in Lee Kuan Yew that quality. And I don’t think Mahathir would proclaim to have that. Mahathir had to deal with a different reality and that’s the Islamic question.

That is why it is necessary to include Mahathir in Giants of Asia, for 22 years, helping to manage and govern a country that is two-thirds Muslim … and moving them forward to modernity.

The tragedy of Mahathir is – because of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements – he went on the radar of the Western media as an anti-Semite, which I don’t think he is.

The tone you took in the book was very respectful and not really the brash Western confrontational style. Some people thought you were being too kind.

I do believe Western journalists made major impediments to our understanding of what’s going on in Asia by virtue of their ego, brashness, arrogance, cultural insensitivity and their ignorance.

How many journalists parachute in and interview a Prime Minister or some person in society worthy of respect and treat him as if they were colonial overlords? Kishore Mahbubani calls it “intellectual colonialism”.

I respect somebody who has been Prime Minister of Malaysia for 22 years and improved on his country.

You look at Singapore today, everybody knows it’s a gem. It’s not done the American way.

If that is a sin, respecting people of accomplishment, I plead guilty.

The second reason is the nature of methodology. It’s not a biographical narrative. It is a report on a series of conversations.