Anwar Ibrahim, on Malaysia-Singapore relations – we “have to move on” and “work together”

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Photo: Youtube screengrab

At the annual Singapore Summit on September 15, Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim spoke of the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore, saying that the countries’ historical and economic ties, which are already strong, cannot fail. He stressed the need for the two countries to “move on” from some issues and “work together”.

“It is strong and we cannot fail. I don’t think it is sensible to create any problems between these two countries,” he said, addressing business and thought leaders from the region.

This was in response to a question on his views regarding bilateral relations and whether there were any models for strengthening ties being discussed, posed to him by Singapore’s former Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed.

After Pakatan Harapan coalition’s victory on Malaysia’s hotly contested May 9 elections, two issues have been cause for worry – Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s statements on the price of water that Malaysia sells to Singapore and the delay of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project.

The main concern is that Malaysia may turn hostile or confrontational toward Singapore, which already occurred from 1981 to 2003, Dr. Mahathir’s first premiership assignment.

However, Mr. Anwar, who is the president-elect of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, a component party of PH, confidently said, “I honestly don’t believe there is a problem” between the two countries.

He spoke of the measures Dr. Mahathir had taken to insure Malaysia’s economic stability, which were considered unpopular and “extreme”, saying that “in the short term, this is critical.”

On September 5, the HSR project, which aims to link Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Singapore via a planned high-speed rail line, was officially postponed to 2020. It was agreed that Malaysia would pay abortive costs of S$15 million to Singapore by January 2019.

In the months leading up to that decision, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the HSR project as Dr. Mahathir had revealed intentions to not push through with it, in an effort to cut the country’s RM1 trillion (S$336 billion) debt. He later clarified that the Malaysian government wanted it to be deferred instead.

Dr. Mahathir also commented that the price of water that Malaysia sells to Singapore, which was covered under the 1962 Water Agreement, is “manifestly ridiculous” and talked about raising it tenfold at the very least. In response to this, Singapore announced that Putrajaya had already given up its right to a price review when it chose not to do so in 1987, as dictated by the 1962 agreement.

According to an interview published on Thursday, Mr. Anwar said that Dr. Mahathir was well within reason to review these issues as some of the deals made by the previous Najib Razak government were “dubious”. He also said that PH considers some of Singapore’s positions and views “to be excessive”.

He also remarked on Singapore’s overly “business-like” approach, saying that the Malaysia-Singapore relationship should be more than just “dollars and cents, rule and order”. He urged both countries’ younger generation of leaders to make an effort to build stronger ties with each other, commenting that they do not have the “same exposure and experience and relationship as the first generation or the second generation”.

Citing Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent visit to Malaysia, Mr. Anwar said that it was a “nice gesture” as “these signals are important”. Prime Minister Lee visited with Malaysian leaders shortly after PH’s victory on May 9 and just days after Mr. Anwar’s full pardon and release from prison, where he previously served a jail term for sodomy.

Mr. Anwar said that the visit was not merely about business or diplomatic matters but about rebuilding trust between the nations.

Singapore and Malaysia, said Mr. Anwar, need “to move on” and “work together” to keep their relationship strong.