A welcome thaw in Singapore-Malaysia relations this week following Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Putrajaya for the leaders’ retreat has surprised many.
However, it comes at a difficult time for Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government with Mahathir slugging it out in an ongoing tussle with the crown prince of the southern state of Johor that shares deeply-rooted ties with Singapore. This tussle has stolen the limelight from the sudden thaw in bilateral relations and shows how far Mahathir will go if you push him in a corner.
The tit-for-tat responses between the nonagenarian political fox and the young crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim may have overshadowed new agreements between Malaysia and Singapore but it is the resolving of conflicts, particularly the bilateral water issue, that will have a deeper impact on Johor.
Mahathir and the crown prince have been at loggerheads on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Malaysia ratified the Rome Satute a month ago but withdrew last week.
In the ongoing tussle, none of them want to be on the losing side and both the executive and the prince want to have the upper hand in the running of affairs of Malaysia as well as Johor.
On a certain number of issues, however, we should expect concessions and cooperation between the overpowerful Johor royal family, and central government via the state government. After all, Malaysia is a federation and Johor is part of that federation.
The PH government’s forced U-turn on the Rome Statute is an example of the intensity of public tussles between the elected executive and royals.
Dr Mahathir has a long history of conflicts with the ‘rulers’. He dismisses claims by the Johor crown prince that the Rome Statute threatens the powers of the Malay rulers who, among other roles, are heads of Islam in their states. There is also the matter of whether these rulers have discretionary powers in appointing their state’s main federal government representative known as a “Menteri Besar”.
After pulling out of the Rome Statute, Mahathir’s jibes at Tunku Ismail went viral. Mahathir says the critics of the Rome Statute wants to trigger a row between the country’s monarchy and the new government.
He says: “We understand that this is a political move. A political move to get the rulers to back them up. Some members of the royal family also may be involved.”
Mahathir insists the confusion comes from one particular person “who wants to be free to beat up people and things like that”.
The prime minister also warned: “If he beats up people again, I will send the police to arrest him. I don’t care who he is.”
The public exchange of jibes shows that Mahathir is going forward with reforms in the country and that some quarters are not happy with the upcoming changes. Thus, the talk of a possible ‘coup d’état’ by a ‘deep state’ involving civil servants and anti-PH forces came to light last week.
Is the sudden change of tone by Malaysia in conflict with Singapore an attempt to gain leverage on the state of Johor? Or, is it Mahathir’s way of killing two birds with one stone?
Perhaps resolving or showing the political will to resolve conflicts with Singapore will give Mahathir’s government greater leeway to decide on port issues in Johor for it is no secret that these port issues are of interest to some powerful parties in the state.
Last week, the Johor crown prince alleged that the state had been in the dark over a ship hub project. Soon afterwards, Johor’s Menteri Besar resigned in an unsurprising move that seems to be part of a chess game. The PH government expects the new Johor chief to kowtow to the federal government, not to the state’s royal family.
The most compelling element this week, however, remains the change of stance and language by both Singapore, and Malaysia on bilateral disputes.
The neighbouring countries showed how matured leadership on both sides can step up efforts to resolve or suggest solutions for lingering conflicts.
Both nation-states must continue to work harder to strengthen ties in order to face growing challenges.
The current global environment does not augur well for both countries, with China rising as a challenge against traditional economic partners like the US and the EU.
China’s rise as an economic behemoth rattles the US but also puts Singapore, Malaysia and the entire Asean region at risk of a disruptive future.
This alone is a good reason for both nations to settle differences amicably and push for wider cooperation that will enable the harnessing of the vast economic potential that exists between them.
According to analysts, the Johor royalty can still play a stabilising role between the two countries even with the thawing of bilateral relations.
The perception would then be that Johor’s royal leaders stood firm as major economic and development partners in the state during the peak of the recent Singapore-Malaysia conflict.