Just 10 days after the Malaysian opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, won the general elections in May, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid a courtesy call to the coalition’s leader in Putrajaya.
“You are our nearest and closest neighbour, so when this happened I thought I would come up soon, touch base, renew our links,” PM Lee told Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
PM Lee was the second foreign minister to visit Dr Mahathir after the elections.
In his congratulatory note to the then newly-elected Malaysian leader, PM Lee said, “We have had extensive cooperation with successive Malaysian Governments, and we had strong, mutually-beneficial ties and interactions during your previous term as Prime Minister.”
Dr Mahathir had been Malaysia’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003.
“I am confident that under your leadership, our two countries can find ways to further strengthen and deepen the bilateral relationship,” PM Lee added.
While PM Lee’s cordial remarks were a diplomatic necessity, there were questions – unspoken perhaps – about what would be in store for bilateral relations, given that ties between the two countries during Dr Mahathir’s first period as Malaysian leader was not a smooth-going one.
Alas, those fears seem to be vindicated in recent weeks, as old issues surface once again, putting strain on bilateral relations.
In particular, Malaysia’s unilateral extension in October of its port limits in Johor Baru without consultation with Singapore; intrusions by Malaysian government vessels between November and December into Singapore waters; and its claims that Singapore’s introduction of a new aviation guiding system infringes its sovereignty, among other issues.
These matters arose following earlier ones this year, including disputes over the proposed and agreed High Speed Rail project, water prices, and even the Causeway bridge.
The dredging up of these old issues have dismayed Singaporeans and Malaysians alike, especially when ties under the previous Malaysian government seemed to have improved.
Unfortunately, both sides’ claims to being right on the disputed matters have now resulted in a very public quarrel, conducted through the media on both sides. When this happens, there is a danger that positions will harden and compromise or resolution will be elusive, leading to further deterioration of relations.
In addition, Malaysia’s continued intrusions into Singapore waters present an unnecessary potential for real conflict on the ground. It has been reported that both the Singapore and Malaysian vessels in the area are armed. Any misunderstanding resulting in open conflict will be worrying, to say the least.
Both sides must realise and accept that resolutions can only happen through dialogue, whether via bilateral discussions or third party mediation. This would be the mature and beneficial way to come to an agreement over the issues.
Singapore and Malaysia need to understand that much work has been put into cultivating relations over the last 50 years, and that it would be most regrettable if disputes over issues were allowed to negate all the effort put in by both sides. As this recent article in the Straits Times, titled “Beware of grey zones conflicts”, urged, we need to “continue to build on friendships at all levels despite the atmospherics.”
And indeed, Malaysia and Singapore have been engaged in this, especially in both economic and military ties.
For example, both sides have been working to improve military relations for decades. In fact, even as the ongoing disputes first came to light, both countries’ militaries were participating in the 24th edition of Exercise Semangat Bersatu (which means Unity in Spirit), held from 18 to 28 November, and “involved 980 personnel from both armies who trained together in Johor”, the Straits Times article reported.
“From 26 November to 3 December, Exercise Malapura saw some 600 personnel from the Royal Malaysian Navy and Republic of Singapore Navy come together to practise the planning of naval operations and deployment of warships, helicopters and war planes for maritime security scenarios in the Malacca Strait.”
Singapore has said it adopts a prosper thy neighbour attitude towards relations, and this is evidenced by the fact that Malaysia is Singapore’s top trading partner. Hundreds of thousands of Malaysians travel to Singapore to work on a daily basis, making them the biggest foreign group of workers in Singapore, and thousands of Singaporeans visit and shop in Malaysia, and see our northern neighbour as a holiday destination. Each of these contribute to the other’s economy and people relations.
“Virtually everyone has a friend or family on the other side of the Causeway,” Facebook user John Lam posted online recently in a post which has gone viral. “Historically, we have been together far longer than we have been apart.”
Dr Mahathir, in fact, recently described the two sides’ intimate relations as akin to that of twins.
“Malaysia and Singapore are like twins, except maybe the elder twin is a little bit bigger than the younger one,” he said on 6 December in a Facebook post following his visit to Singapore. “As with most countries, there will be differences and there will be competition between us. However, it will help us grow even faster.”
Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who has been at the forefront of responding to the different claims by Malaysia over the disputes, noted Dr Mahathir’s remarks.
“(Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad) has described our two countries and compared them to a pair of twins,” Mr Khaw said on 12 December. “And that’s a good illustration. As twins, you ought to embrace each other and help each other grow and help each other succeed and celebrate each other’s achievements. Then I think it is so much better.”
With Malaysia having undergone a leadership transition in May, and Singapore expecting to do so in the next two years, the time is right for a new beginning away from the old baggage of distrust and antagonism of the past. Now is an opportunity for the younger leaders on both sides of the peninsula to forge new and abiding ties for mutual benefit.
Malaysians and Singaporeans would undoubtedly welcome this, and will work to prosper together in these uncertain times in the world.
During Dr Mahathir’s first visit to Singapore in November, his first since the May elections, PM Lee said both sides are each other’s closest neighbour, whose “relationship is further strengthened by bonds of kinship, friendship and memories”.
“Singapore and Malaysia will always have a unique place for each other in our hearts,” he said. “We are bound by geography and history, our economies are extensively intertwined because we are each other’s second largest trading partners, and Singapore is Malaysia’s second largest foreign investor.”
Dr Mahathir, in his remarks during his trip, said, “It is not often that we see countries which come together and are separated, and still work together and help each other.”
The desire for good relations from both sides is clear, and was echoed by Anwar Ibrahim, who is expected to take over from Dr Mahathir as Prime Minister within these two years.
In September, Mr Anwar said that Singapore would be “one of the first countries” he visits after he assumes the PM post, a sign of the importance he places on the relationship. He also noted that “it was not sensible to create problems between the two countries.”
According to the Straits Times, Mr Anwar “stressed that relations between Singapore and Malaysia have been historically strong but warned that the younger generation from both countries might not share the same experiences and relationships as the first or second generation citizens.”
“You need to understand that and therefore we need additional effort,” he said.
Mr Anwar also noted PM Lee’s visit to Putrajaya in May after the Malaysian elections.
“It was very cordial and it was a very (good) gesture for the PM to be the first to come and visit,” he said. “I think these signals are important because this goes beyond just diplomatic encounters or business deals.”
The remarks from the leaders from both sides will hopefully engender the spirit with which disputes will be discussed and resolved, and bilateral relations be reaffirmed.
Both sides should be mindful that while short-term problems will crop up now and again, they must not be allowed to damage or destroy the long-term relationship forged over the last 50 years or so.
Let calmer heads prevail, and for dialogue to take place, in private, to resolve disagreements between the two sides.