Asia Malaysia Bilahari Kausikan: Singapore-Malaysia relations strained by political instability in PH

Bilahari Kausikan: Singapore-Malaysia relations strained by political instability in PH

Old bilateral issues resurfaced as soon as Pakatan Harapan came into power and there are fears that Singapore maybe used as the 'whipping boy' to rally the Malays




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According to former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, the current political instability amongst the members of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, as well as the coalition’s lack of success in getting support from Malays, are making relations between Malaysia and Singapore worse.

Mr Kausikan made these remarks at a public lecture at the National University of Singapore entitled ‘Singapore’s relations with Indonesia and Malaysia’.

The Malaysian Insight reports that he emphasized that old bilateral issues “almost immediately resurfaced” after the PH coalition won against Barisan Nasional (BN) in Malaysia’s fourteenth General Election in May 2018. 

These were disputes concerning maritime and airspace limits, as well as the price of water that is sold by Malaysia to Singapore.

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He said, “These issues are not new and they cannot be resolved. To resolve an issue, both sides must want to resolve it. Whereas in this case, the other side’s interest is to keep them alive to use them to rally support.”

The retired diplomat was Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and has served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador to Russia.

He warned against pointing fingers solely at Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Tun Mahathir Mohamad, but said that his presence is definitely a factor.

“It would be wrong to place too much emphasis on the personality of Dr Mahathir, although that was undoubtedly a factor.”

For Mr Kausikan, the responsibility falls on the PH administration, and he criticized them for their instability.

He said, “More importantly, the new Pakatan Harapan government is fundamentally incoherent. It’s falling apart.”

To support his point, he mentioned research from Merdeka Center in 2018, which showed a division of votes from Malays into three-ways: PH, Umno and Islamist party PAS.

This means that the support of the biggest ethnic group in Malaysia is split between three different groups.

For the former diplomat, this is a sign that the ruling coalition is unstable. He added that this stability will only intensify as the group attempts to gain more support in order to hold on to power even through the next elections.

He also said that in trying to obtain more support, Singapore may be ended up being presented as a “bogeyman” or “whipping boy.”

“Using Singapore as a bogeyman or whipping boy to rally the Malay ground is a time-tested tactic. Dr Mahathir used it when he led Umno, he uses it now that he is head of Bersatu. This is not just a matter of personality or historical baggage.”

The former ambassador showed no optimism that the political scene in Malaysia will stabilize any time soon, due to the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism as well as infighting amongst the ruling party.

Mr Kausikan encouraged the new generation of leaders in Singapore to to keep the country’s armed forces strong, calling this crucial in the country’s relations with Malaysia. He believes that officials from Malaysia would always try to subvert the republic.

“Even though Singapore is now accepted as a sovereign state, it is not a situation which Malaysia is entirely comfortable with. Today, the governments of our neighbours deal with Singapore as a sovereign nation only because we have developed capabilities that have given them no other choice. It is not their preferred way of dealing with a small, ethnic Chinese-majority city-state. They would prefer us to accept a subordinate role as do their own Chinese populations,” he said.

The leadership of Singapore should keep on “establish(ing)  red lines” in order to let Putrajaya know that if force is needed, it’s at the ready.

“The threat of use of force is as much part of diplomacy as negotiations. Diplomacy is not just about being nice. It is essential to establish red lines because it is only when red lines are clearly understood that mutual relations can be conducted on the basis of mutual respect.”

For the former diplomat, the underlying reason why Malaysia continues to act belligerently towards Singapore is because of the country’s multi-multi-ethnicity and meritocracy, which is very different from the ace-based policies of Malaysia.

“The basic and enduring issue is not what we do, but what we are – a multiracial, meritocratic small city state that performs better than they do and we must always perform better. The very existence of our dramatically very different system, too close to be ignored or disregarded, that does better than their system, poses an implicit criticism of their system to their own people.”

Read related: “No substitute for deterrence” – Bilahari Kausikan

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