The dispute over the 1962 Singapore-Johor Water Agreement is neither just about who is richer or poorer nor just about respecting the sanctity of agreements. It is simply about Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the abysmal intelligence fed to Istana before he returned to power last year and the post-LKY era generation of Singaporean leaders’ incompetence and inability to deal with him in a way that is productive, smart and realistic.
Let’s put it like this: Is he more difficult to deal with him than Abdullah Badawi, Najib Razak (the previous two Malaysian leaders) or, if all things go well, the Prime Minister-designate Anwar Ibrahim? Of course. Mahathir has been around for a long time. Abdullah and Najib had no known baggage with Singapore. Unlike Mahathir, they never tangled with Lee Kuan Yew when Singapore was part of Malaysia and were not seen as any kind of bumiputra ultras who were antagonistic towards the late Singapore Prime Minister and his Malaysian Malaysia anti-affirmative action policies or towards Singapore itself. The reformist Anwar and his progressive Parti Keadilan Rakyat should also not be a problem. But Mahathir has a history with LKY. No secret.
So we now have a situation where Singapore’s 3G and 4G leaders find themselves stuck with a 2G Malaysian leader who is almost 1G (he was a Federal MP in 1964!) and having to react to all the unexpected old issues, made worse by decisions arrived at during the Najib period when they were totally lulled by over-confidence about the status quo. They never quite expected Mahathir to return to the helm in Putrajaya to haunt them again. Or that he might well have been a reformist in the Malaysian context but not necessarily in inter-Causeway relations.
To add to our 4G’s problems, Mahathir personally has never been an easy politician to deal with in the first place, even for his own political colleagues in Malaysia. The first Malaysian PM Tengku Abdul Rahman, whom Mahathir criticised for failing to uphold Malay interests, found him a handful. He had many battles within UMNO with a host of leaders like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and even Musa Hitam, an erstwhile Deputy PM and ally turned rival. Then there was Anwar whom he sacked and has since reconciled with. Mahathir also had been fighting to curb the Malaysian monarchy’s powers.
I think Singapore’s current set of leaders have been caught napping big time a couple of times the last three years. They were caught by Brexit and Donald Trump’s entry into the White House which led to the death of the original Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement. All the hard work for the abortive trade pact which was unscrambled in a few days. At the same time, they did not realise that Beijing was displeased enough by our pro-free passage stand over the South China Sea to seize and hold the Terrez carriers for months in Hong Kong. So much for special relationships.
Mahathir’s dramatic re-emergence must also have been ruled out by poor intelligence feedback around election time or in the leadup to the huge Bersih rallies. The mainstream media too were doing politically correct stories that did not capture the real situation. What does one expect these days when you send scholar wannabes who are reluctant to roll up their sleeves, dirty their designer shoes and pursue the truth slogging through the kampongs of Permatang Pauh, Gua Musang and Iskandar Puteri? With so much focus on countries far away in East Asia, never our hinterland, they have neglected our backyard and given the impression to locals that we can leap over the neighbourhood and find our destiny elsewhere. Once again, I ask: How many of the 4G leaders can speak fluent Bahasa?
Live with Mahathir. Deal with him. He is not going away. He is, in fact, laying down the ground for his younger leaders on how to interact with Singapore’s younger leaders.
I see advantage in having him around. He is obviously testing the likes of Heng Swee Keat and Vivian Balakrishnan. Younger Malaysian leaders mentored by him will carry on his legacy in inter-Causeway relations.
In trying to cope with him, the 4G leaders can learn a lot. They will, I hope, develop their own updated template which will be more pragmatic, more forward-looking and more suited to the changes that have taken place since Mahathir’s first premiership.
The best thing Vivian Balakrishnan and the Foreign Ministry can do is: Stop whining and work harder.
Tan Bah Bah is a former Senior Leader Writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.