I am going to ramble a bit this week, trying to link the dots in developments across the Causeway which have some consequences for Singapore, including itsrelationship with Malaysia. Forgive me if I sound incoherent, as I attempt to update readers who may not have been following the events so closely. Put simply, the picture is still not clear in Kuala Lumpur, the dust has not settled.
Let’s talk about the Perikatan Nasional government first. Its potential shelf life is until May 18, the next sitting of the Dewan Rakyat (postponed from the original March 9). We can expect that Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who said he was betrayed by his erstwhile ally, Muhyiddin Yassin, his successor as Malaysian Prime Minister, will not take things lying down.
There is a huge amount of face and legacy issues involved here. Mahathir will not like going down in Malaysian history as the Man Who Lost The Plot, as suggested by some observers. Just as important, he would detest being shunted aside after having made a spectacular comeback from retirement to get rid of kleptocrats and the corrupt – only to face the possibility of these people escaping punishment or, worse still, returning to power. Already Attorney-General, Tommy Thomas, specially appointed to deal with key corruption cases, has quit. So has Latheefa Koya, head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz (Mentri Besar of Perlis), and his daughter, Marina (a major reformist leader), may be vulnerable now, with their power and influence at stake – something which may not sit well with Malaysia’s once all-powerful iconic leader.
The possible return of Mahathir is also not necessarily dependent only on his continuing partnership with Anwar Ibrahim and the Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Democratic Action Party. There are elements in his old party, UMNO, who may join him in either a recaptured Bersatu or a splinter pro-Mahathir loyalists group. We should not be surprised that many UMNO members, especially the younger ones, support their former long-standing leader.
The legitimacy of the PN government should be settled on May 18 by a tabling of a vote of no-confidence by the Opposition. Who can muster openly the 112 MPs required for a simple majority in the 222-member Malaysian parliament gets to form the government. It is entirely possible that between now and then, the PN, if it feels it does not have the numbers, will manoeuvre to dissolve parliament and try its luck in a snap polls. Rather than lose outright, it will hope to cash in on a pro-Malay momentum which saw a number of by-election defeats for the ousted Pakatan Harapan recently.
This time around, whatever the final fate of Mahathir, the Singapore government seems less anxiety-ridden than when the Pakatan Harapan swept Mahathir into power in 2018. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong practically rushed to Putrajaya to meet the Malaysian leader who gave him a half an hour meeting. Word was that people here were caught by surprise by the return of Mahathir who had a history of being difficult to deal with when it came to Singapore-Malaysia matters.
Truth be told, neither was the ascension of dark horse Muhyiddin on March 1 expected by many people, least of all by Mahathir himself. Most eyes were glued to the Mahathir-Anwar tussle.
Down south past the Johor Strait, the Singapore government has congratulated Muhyiddin – with not a small amount of relief. In the years when Goh Chok Tong was PM, and Lee Kuan Yew was still around, the Republic enjoyed quite a comfortable and close relationship with Johore, with the state government and the Sultan. Muhyiddin was the then Mentri Besar for a number of years. The local media used to play up the satay parties held in Johor Bahru during Hari Raya Puasa and the reciprocal National Day celebrations held in the Singapore Istana, all with batik shirts thrown in for greater kampung spirit neighbourliness. Perhaps to dampen what he saw as too much cosiness, Mahathir pulled Muhyiddin away to the Federal government in Kuala Lumpur.
So is Muhyiddin someone that the un-flamboyant Singapore PM-designate Heng Swee Keat, who is probably closer in temperament to him than to Mahathir, can do business with? Yes. Both have no past baggage. Muhyiddin is, in essence, a Johore statesman who has nopeeve with the Johore Sultan or with Singapore. He is not likely to throw a Crooked Bridge spanner into the cross-straits goings-on. And that would be a relief for Singapore. We would not know what to do with such a bridge.
If Muhyiddin survives, it should be a win-win situation for ruling politicians on both sides of the Causeway. More satay, Sultan’s birthday dos, National Day makan and halal yee sung are in the works. Batik shirt time again.
And, oh yes, two more Singapore links arising out of the Sheraton Move.
In retrospect, I believe the Democratic Action Party repeated the same mistake committed by Lee Kuan Yew when we were in Malaysia. It was pushing too hard when it was in power as part of the Pakatan Harapan coalition. It made unnecessary enemies out of peoplewho could have been allies. The words of the Gabungan Parti Sarawak were quite telling.
Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg recalled past remarks made by DAP leaders condemning the state government. The Star reported him as saying DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng had come to Sarawak and announced that the state was going to go bankrupt in the next three years. “We (GPS) are not stupid to support the party. We have to be careful because that party (DAP) had the intention of taking over Sarawak,” he said. According to him, DAP had also accused GPS of not being able to govern the state well. “When it was part of the federal government, a lot of projects in Sarawak were withdrawn,” he added.
Perhaps in the same vein of impatience, the late Lee Kuan Yew’s Malaysian Malaysia movement as a counterpoint against Malay Malaysia (which has Ketuanan Melayu – Malay supremacy – as its basis) was tactically naïve, given the larger Malay population, then and now mostly rural.
History repeats itself.
Another Singapore after-note concerns Dr Tan Cheng Bock. He was obviously inspired by Mahathir’s comeback when he formed the Progress Singapore Party. Let’s hope he is not discouraged by his fellow doctor’s sudden political collapse.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor, of TheIndependent.SG, was a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.