Where are Singapore and Malaysia now exactly? Equally important, do Singaporeans understand what is going on, so they can have meaningful conversations about a developing story at its neighbourhood and help both governments do the right things?
The first point: Malaysia, without Singapore, has come round full circle to the original Malaysian Malaysia concept which many political parties, the People’s Action Party included at that time, were pushing in the lead-up to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
I would consider the emergence of the “new” Pakatan Harapan governed Malaysia as a sign that Malaysia is on the road to a new kind or revised version of Malaysian Malaysia.
The appointments of DAP’s Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister and Gobind Singh Deo as Minister for Communications and Multimedia and Tommy Thomas as the new Attorney-General all point to that direction. DAP MP Hannah Yeoh is a contender for Speaker of the Malaysian Parliament. It has been a long time since non-bumiputras have held key positions. The intention is more than symbolic.
Also, there are a couple of ironies which should be highlighted to show that time has a way of saying that nothing is impossible. Never mind Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s old history with his nemesis turned ally and PM-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim. In a highly personal interview with the BBC, Anwar spoke about how his family had suffered more than he and they were at first not prepared to budge. He said his daughter Nurul Izzah at first even refused to greet Mahathir when he came to propose a coalition to fight Najib Razak. But in the end, she was convinced by Mahathir’s sincerity and admission that he was wrong about her father.
A hard man does not easily admit his mistake but he has.
The second irony is the choice of Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister. It is not that he is the first non-Malay Finance Minister in a long time. It is that he comes from a party that has an umbilical cord to Singapore’s PAP. The Democratic Action Party started off as the PAP when Singapore was part of Malaysia but had to re-register itself as the DAP after the Separation in 1965.
Six decades on, the other hard man, Lee Kuan Yew, has now posthumously witnessed his dream come true, albeit that dream was during his time in Malaysia as part of his own political strategy in competing with other parties.
Which brings me to another issue. I was having lunch with a close friend who enjoyed meeting up with old kakis from his school, a good school. He was always eager to exchange views about Malaysian politics. As I found out every time we met, he wanted not only to trade stories but also to verify the kakis’ stories. “Did you know this?” “You heard the news about the quarrel between Daim Zainuddin (leader of the PH coalition’s Council of Eminent Persons) and Anwar?” There was no such quarrel. I told him so. When asked to show me the source of the story, he could only pass me a WhatsApp message that had no source. I may be wrong but I could not remember any report about this.
One thing we must remember about Malaysia is that it has always been pluralistic, it still is. Its media may not be liberal and US East Coast. But it is common for political rivals to fly kites through proxies. Some stories are crafted in a way to allude to more things than there appear to be.
The new government has pledged to allow greater freedom for the media. It cannot afford to go back on its words. Anwar and Mahathir have both accepted the necessity of checks and balance, the traditional role of the press. So wish the new Malaysia well, do not get involved in its politics.
The path that Malaysia has chosen will be a strong, dynamic and imaginative one which will be more inclusive than in the past. There will be the usual infighting, jostling for power. Every society has that. Part of life.
It has experienced a near-precipice collapse of no return and does not wish to return to that dark period.
That alone will spur it on.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.