Despite some misgivings about having to deal again with Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was seen as someone not particularly friendly to us in his first term as Malaysian PM, many Singaporeans welcomed the victory of Pakatan Harapan in May. There was a stimulating reformist zeal about the new Putrajaya, with everyone in Singapore looking forward to moving ahead in a fresh era of cooperation with a new Malaysia minus all the old baggage in cross-Causeway relations.
Then came a small series of Malaysian noises of dissatisfaction with the status quo. High speed rail project postponement, murmurs about a revival of the crooked bridge or the need for a third bridge in the Johor Strait, allegedly underpriced water being sold to Singapore. Still manageable, however, because, apart from the Singapore-KL HSR project, they were just grumblings – so far.
Half a year later, Singaporeans have just had a real rude dose of realpolitik. Putrajaya wants to take back control of Malaysian airspace in Johor, seeing it as an affront to its sovereignty. It has also been “reasserting” rights over its territorial waters. Malaysia made the decision on Oct 25, when it issued a federal government gazette declaring it would extend the Johor Baru port limits into waters that Singapore has long regarded as its own.
Malaysian government vessels have been continually intruding into Singapore’s waters off Tuas, according to a Singapore government statement. There have hitherto been 14 intrusions, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Thursday, when he issued a statement on Malaysia’s “blatant provocation”.
I cannot see beyond the hand of Dr Mahathir in the current spate of almost engineered disagreements between the two neighbouring countries.
ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Mustafa Izzuddin said the moves could be “due to pressures confronting the Malaysian government to safeguard its national interests and to demonstrate to its people that it is strong and competent”. It is a political mileage thing.
But then the Singapore government does the same from time to time, especially right now as it evokes all sorts of worst-case scenarios to remind Singaporeans of threats to our existence and that they have to stand strong together to fight these threats. Par for course. Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin indulged in exactly this kind of jingoism: “Looks like some countries are back to their old tricks and games to bolster their own internal positions. Let’s stand firm. Let’s stand united.”
On the surface, it’s the classic pattern of letting everything hang out in the public in as controlled a way as possible before holding some serious four-eyes summits between the leaders to resolve the situation.
Meanwhile, as I said, it would be amiss for Mahathir not to use this opportunity to lay down the ground rules on how to deal with Singapore.
He is 93 years old, with not many years left as PM or even as mentor. He has a team of many rookie ministers who are not only rookie ministers but also never been part of government, much less deal with foreign leaders and ministers. They are effective politicians who have succeeded in bringing down long-serving incumbents and are only just learning the ropes of government and international relations.
They have to learn how to interact from a position of strength with its nearest southern neighbour. It is wishful thinking on the part of Khaw Boon Wan to say: “When I discussed the HSR project with Malaysia’s Economics Minister Azmin Aziz, I had a distinct feeling that young ministers in Malaysia want a fresh relationship with Singapore, without any past baggage.”
Obviously we are beginning to re-notice that fresh works only when there is a fully confident government in Putrajaya. Nothing is ever straightfoward in Malaysia. Even Mahathir could not prevent the protests against ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which is not any threat to Malay/bumiputra rights. Opposition elements took advantage of perceived threats to hold a massive rally in Kuala Lumpir yesterday (Dec 8), even after Putrajaya has said it would not be ratifying the treaty.
And yesterday too, Mahathir said he had to turn down an invitation to attend today’s (Dec 9) human rights day celebration organised by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). “Suhakam wants to accept ICERD, so how can I go,” he said.
Nationalist credits have to be earned or constantly burnished.
You may have noticed some irony here. PAP Transport Minister Khaw was born in Penang. The person at the front of the dispute on the Malaysian side, Transport Minister Anthony Loke, is from the Democratic Action Party. The DAP is an offshoot of the PAP. Former Singapore President Devan Nair was the party’s first secretary-general. How times have changed.
Apart from teaching his ministers, Mahathir is probably testing the Singapore Cabinet which is itself undergoing some generational changes. It is scary to realise that many of the 4G leaders may still be cutting their teeth in coping with the complexities of what’s going on in Malaysia.
For start, I am not at all sure the anointed PM-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat has the panache to share the same political stage with and to stand up to Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim and the likes. Does he even know how to speak Malay, the language of nearly 300 million people in the region?
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.