KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s former leader Mahathir Mohamad, one of Lee Kuan Yew’s greatest rivals, said on Friday he was saddened by the death of Singapore’s founding father although the two Southeast Asian strongmen often clashed and seldom agreed on issues.
“I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise,” Mahathir said in his first comments on the death of his rival, posted on his blog on Friday.
Lee died on Monday, aged 91.
Their thorny relationship reflected the difficult ties between two countries that had briefly formed a single state soon after gaining independence from British colonial rule.
Mahathir said he first met Lee when he was a member of Parliament in 1964 after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963.
“We crossed swords many time during the debates,” said the 89-year-old Mahathir in the post titled ‘Kuan Yew and I’. “But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation.”
Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, as bitter political disputes stirred misgivings in their multi-racial societies. While ethnic Chinese form the majority in Singapore, ethnic Malays are in majority in Malaysia, and both have smaller Indian minorities.
Lee, a lawyer turned politician, went on to transform the city-state of Singapore into one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
While Mahathir, a doctor turned politician, championed the rights of Malays while making Malaysia an electronics manufacturing hub to shed its image as an agricultural backwater.
Both showed little patience for dissent as they pursued missions to modernise their countries, but would often antagonise each other with sharp words.
Lee criticised Malaysia’s race-based politics, while Mahathir often targeted Lee’s control over free speech.
Remembering their uneasy relationship, Mahathir said Lee had mistakenly identified him among the “ultra Malays” who were behind race riots in Singapore in the 1960s.
“Actually, I never went to Singapore to stir up trouble,” said Mahathir.
In his blog, Mahathir recalled visiting Lee in 1981, when the Singaporean leader agreed to his proposal to advance both their countries’ time zone by 30 minutes.
“I am afraid on most other issues we could not agree,” he said.
Singapore and Malaysia still often struggle to advance economic cooperation, despite their close links.
Lee’s death marked the end of an era of strong post-colonial leaders in the region, Mahathir said, with a nod of respect to Suharto, Indonesia’s strong man, who died in 2008.
“His passage marks the end of the period when those who fought for independence lead their countries and knew the value of independence,” said Mahathir.
Lee’s funeral is on Sunday, and will be attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Canada’s Governor General David Johnston have also said they will come.
The United States will be represented by former president Bill Clinton.
Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore