The Mahathir Effect – The 80 Minutes Meeting That Has Gotten Singapore Terribly Upset

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Sep 03 2018
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The government of Lee Hsien Loong should just laugh off five naughty Singaporeans’ attempt to make Mahathir Mohamad as the new icon of democracy in Southeast Asia. But Singapore isn’t a nation that would let go of anything remotely belong to them – without a good fight. That’s part of their culture of kiasu (afraid to lose out) and kiasi (afraid of death or overly afraid).


After all, this is the same Singapore that is trying to nominate its hawker culture to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, never mind neighbouring Malaysia has many times more hawker centre than the little island. Naturally, the move by Singapore PM Lee sparked anger in Malaysia, whose citizens have long claimed their own street food.


As the closest ally of the United States, Singapore has long perceived itself as the beacon of democracy in the region. However, the shocking and unexpected downfall of Malaysia previous Barisan Nasional coalition government led by corrupt Najib Razak on May 9th changes the political landscape. The man who defeated Najib was none other than Mahathir Mohamad.

Pakatan Harapan - Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamad

Overnight, 93-year-old Mahathir’s successful overthrowing of a tyrant becomes case studies to pro-democracy activists, especially in Hong Kong. Until today, Hong Kong pro-democracy activists are still trying to figure out how the world’s oldest prime minister could achieve such victory in a complex multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religion country, but couldn’t be done in Hong Kong.


Needless to say, Mahathir’s effect has been spilling over to neighbouring Singapore. Mahathir cheekily teased – “I think the people of Singapore, like the people in Malaysia, must be tired of having the same government, the same party since independence.” Of course, the old man was trying to get under Prime Minister Lee’s skin, for obvious reason.


Worried that Malaysia’s progress may influence Singaporean workers to remove the long ruling PAP (People’s Action Party) government, a forum was quickly held to discuss the political storm hitting Malaysia. The so-called intellectuals concluded that Malaysia’s bloodless change of government at the recent general election is unlikely to have a “spillover effect” on Singapore.

Historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin and Malaysia PM Mahathir Mohamad

Tan Wah Piow, Mahathir Mohamand and Hishammuddin Rais

However, when former political dissident Tan Wah Piow, along with several Singaporeans – historian Thum Ping Tjin, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, civil rights activist Jolovan Wham and award-winning graphic novelist Sonny Liew – met with Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday (Aug 30) and invited him to speak at a regional conference on democracy, all hell breaks loose.


Apparently, Mr Tan, who lives in exile in London after his citizenship was revoked over 30 years ago over allegation that he was involved in a planned Marxist coup in 1987, had requested Mahathir to speak at a conference on democracy in Southeast Asia that his non-profit organisation – Forces for Renewal of South East Asia – is organising.


Mahathir reportedly has accepted Mr Tan’s invitation “in-principle”, subject to his availability. But the Singapore Government wasn’t amused with the event. As a start, here’s the appetiser – the meeting granted to the 5 Singaporeans lasted 80-minutes, more than double the time allocated for Lee Hsien Loong who was given just 30-minutes by Mahathir before being sent home.

Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Visits Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad

Once again, it is proven that PM Lee’s trip to Malaysia to pay the newly installed PM Mahathir a visit on May 19th was a huge diplomatic failure. Lee Hsien Loong administration wasn’t happy that five opposition individuals were given better treatment than him by Malaysia’s new Pakatan Harapan coalition government.


Singapore Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that while it is the people’s right to have political differences in Singapore, one should “never go out and invite a foreign politician to intervene in our domestic politics.” Mr. Shanmugam described the whole conduct of the Singaporeans involved as “a little sad” and “a bit regretful”.


Mr. Shanmugam went bonkers, saying – “Dr Thum puts up a photo of him holding his book on politics in Singapore, shaking hands with the Malaysian Prime Minister, then puts up a forum post saying that he invites Dr Mahathir to take a leading role in promoting democracy, human rights, freedom of speech in South-east Asia. I think it is quite clear what that means.”

Singapore Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam

He added – “Kirsten Han then puts a post saying, well, that is for Southeast Asia but not Singapore. Where is Singapore if it is not in Southeast Asia? Do we need a geography lesson? And we are not saying anything about Dr Mahathir but I think one needs to be careful with these things.


Member of Parliament (MP) Seah Kian Peng, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and a Member of Parliament for Marine, joined his colleague Shanmugam, slamming Dr Thum whose Facebook post appeared to suggest that Singaporeans should celebrate Malaysia’s independence day (Singapore was part of Malaysia before kicked out and became an independent republic on August 9, 1965).


Dr Thum wrote in the post – “Selamat Hari Merdeka to the people of the former Federation of Malaya! (and happy unofficial independence day to the people of Singapore!).” Mr. Seah said it was “quite clear” that Dr Thum Ping Tjin “does not wish Singapore well”. The war of words has become ugly with threats of blood.

Seah Kian Peng - Singapore MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament

“Mr Seah’s baseless claims have had an incendiary effect, triggering a torrent of accusations of treason and people shouting about us being ‘traitors’. We’re now also getting death threats. I’d expected better from Mr Seah … I urge Mr Seah to retract his baseless statements.” – Ms Han wrote on Facebook.


Meanwhile, Mr Liew said that his friends and family have expressed concern that he “might somehow end up getting charged with treason or get in serious trouble of some sort”. Seriously? Getting charged with treason over a meeting with Mahathir? The last Malaysians heard, the traitor spy agency chief Hasanah had not gotten charged despite writing to CIA to interfere.


The overreactions from the Singapore Government over a petty matter suggest that the Lee Hsien Loong administration is indeed quite panicked with Mahathir government. What happened to the so-called freedom of speech and democracy in Singapore? The country is terribly upset because of what the activists said about Singapore in comparison to Malaysia.

During the meeting, Dr Thum urged Dr Mahathir to “take the lead in lobbying for the promotion of democracy and freedom of expression and inquiry in Southeast Asia”. More importantly, this was the remarks which didn’t go well with Singapore – “I felt Malaysia is in a unique opportunity to really be a beacon of democracy in the region.”


Tan Wah Piow agreed and said – “Personally, I am very grateful for this open, democratic space that Mahathir’s government has opened and it’s a beacon for many who are struggling for democracy. Not just in Singapore but in other parts of Southeast Asia. I think (Singapore) will be very concerned, not because I met with Dr Mahathir, but the fact that the prime minister is prepared to share his views about democracy”.


The real reason why Singapore has gone berserk over the meeting is because for the first time, Malaysia could steal the limelight from Singapore as the new beacon of democracy in the Southeast Asia. By inviting Mahathir to speak at a conference hosted by Singaporean activists on the topic of democracy, it is feared the floodgate would be opened – how genuine democracy is in Singapore?

But it wasn’t a clever tactic that Singapore makes a mountain out of a molehill. Mahathir, once again, has gotten under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s skin by deliberately agreeing, at least “in-principle”, to lecture the region on democracy, a privilege belongs to Singapore. The Singapore Government has played into the hands of it arch-rival – Mahathir Mohamad.


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