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Malaysia unlikely to go fundamentalist: Lee Kuan Yew


Agence France Presse. December 13, 1999

MALAYSIANS are unlikely to opt for Islamic fundamentalism despite the strong showing of a Muslim party in the recent general elections, according to Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew.

The former Singapore leader said in an interview aired late Sunday by satellite broadcaster CNBC Asia that Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad's legacy will be a "modernist approach" and "secular philosophy of government."

The Muslim opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) more than tripled its parliamentary seats to 27 in the November 29 elections, retained control of northern Kelantan state, and captured neighbouring Terengganu.

PAS has also made major inroads in other states including Mahathir's own power base Kedah, taking some shine off the ruling coalition's recapture of more than two-thirds of parliament.

But Lee said it was a "good election result" for Mahathir, now Asia's longest-serving elected leader after staying in power since 1980.

Mahathir, 73, last week ruled out seeking a new term, citing his age, and unveiled a cabinet dominated by loyalists from his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party in the ruling National Front coalition.

The Front's share of the popular vote fell from 65 to 56.5 percent.

Singapore's Lee said plans by PAS to impose a special tax on non-Muslim enterprises in Terengganu would scare not only Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities but also members of the majority Malay community "who want a modern, thriving, bustling Malaysia."

"So I do not think it's likely to go fundamentalist. I mean there are certain pockets of it but I cannot imagine PAS winning Sabah, Sarawak and heavily populated, advanced, more developed states on the West Coast or Johor," Lee said.

But he said the "danger" was that PAS might "take a more secular approach" to become an alternative to the secular UMNO.

"That's a problem," Lee said.

On Mahathir's announcement that he would not seek another term, Lee said "he must have at the back of his mind a plan to preserve his legacy."

Lee, 76, who was prime minister for more than 30 years until stepping down in 1990 to become a senior minister, said there was nothing "more important than to leave behind a system, a government, a society and leaders who can carry on your work."

"My belief is that he must be thinking very hard how to get a team to carry it further," Lee said.

The succession issue in Malaysia was thrown into disarray after Mahathir sacked his deputy and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, in September 1998 after a bitter falling-out.

Anwar was subsequently jailed six years for abuse of power and is on trial for sodomy, but calls both charges the result of a political conspiracy.

Last week, Mahathir retained Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as deputy premier and home minister and kept longtime ally Daim Zainuddin as finance minister. Most other top posts were also unchanged.

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