My former colleague P N Balji is right. He says in his Yahoo commentary on Thursday Dec 14 that statecraft is the missing piece in KL-Singapore relationships. I would go further and say that statecraft has also always been the main lynchpin of Singapore’s relationship with an equally prickly and even larger neighbour – Indonesia. I will come to this in another column.
For Malaysia, whatever statecraft might come into play at the moment must start with understanding Dr Mahathir Mohamad, past and present. Our northern neighbour’s second time around Prime Minister is wily, yes. Otherwise, he would not have been such a dominant political figure all these years. He is a survivor – exiled from UMNO, returning to lead it, facing the Semangat 46 challenge, overcoming the ambition of Anwar Ibrahim, successfully pulling the strings when Abdullah Badawi was PM, then fighting back to unseat Najib Razak who unceremoniously tried to consign him to the dustbin of history. But, well, he is back, though he might not have had the chance to utter the Terminator’s iconic “I’ll be back” when he was away from Putrajaya.
“Wily” does not begin to describe Mahathir. He is undoubtedly complex. He is the father figure of modern Malay nationalism. In his earlier term, he has held controversial views that range from his insistence that non-Malay Malaysians must speak Malay to pro-bumiputra policies and programmes designed to break what he saw as the economic dominance of the Chinese.
But he has also been chiding his own race for their failings. He continues to do so, even now as part of Pakatan Harapan.
All this is well-documented.
In Malaysia, as far I know, not that much has been written publicly – in books or other substantial publications – about his relationship with Singapore leaders. Perhaps there have been papers done by think-tanks on both sides of the Causeway. But, otherwise, zilch. Obviously, abang (elder brother) – so-called in the way that KL has been conducting its business with its once 14th state – does not care too much about what adek (younger brother) has to say.
Instead, the allegedly kurang ajar adek always has lots to say about its relationship with Malaysia. The observations have sprung from what the first-generation Singapore leaders have personally experienced when we were part of Malaysia.
Inasmuch as Mahathir has baggage with Singapore, the early PAP leaders had their own baggage with him. Late PM Lee Kuan Yew’s memories and recollections were cast in print if not iron in the various books by and about him and the interviews he gave when he was alive about the PAP’s abortive forays into the Federation’s political arena. His perceptions came from his encounters inside and outside the Dewan Rakyat with Malay nationalist leaders, including Mahathir and others more ultra than him. PM Lee senior said he believed in a Malaysian Malaysia, a country which belonged to all races. The ultras did not buy this line. They still do not. Neither have a sizeable portion of the Malay base in the heartlands, as shown by the anti-ICERD rally in KL. Yet, ironically, the Malaysian Malaysia mantra is being echoed in the Pakatan Harapan coalition, in whose Cabinet are a couple of Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party ministers, the most prominent being Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng.
In other words, the return of Mahathir is not a negative development. It is a complication but it is also an opportunity to work out a relationship based on a realistic acceptance of the latest developments and whatever is in the best interests of both countries.
PM Lee Hsien Loong appeared to have tried to leave the baggage behind and find a workable relationship with the former PM Najib Razak. They got along fine. Both are of the same age group – Najib is 65 and LHL, 66. More important, both are princelings, being sons of former PMs (Najib’s father is Abdul Razak, the late second Malaysian PM). It looked like everything was possible between KL and Singapore. Until May 9.
Now that Mahathir is back, does that mean we are in for a period of seriously unstable relations?
I believe not.
Mahathir’s testing of Singapore’s new generation leaders will continue and will be part and parcel of the to-ings and fro-ings. Amid all the usual satay and festive parties organised by our leaders and Malaysian leaders, which include Johor royalty just across the Causeway, both sides will continue to realise the limits of brinksmanship and kompang-beating.
Just as crucial, both sides will also have to accept that it has been 53 years since we have been separated. Much has happened since the LKY years. There are signs that Mahathir has come around to the Malaysian Malaysia concept, without saying so and without abandoning the affirmative pro-bumiputra policies.
The PAP itself has to work out a less-angst ridden set of statecraft which is less based on LKY’s edicts and perceptions – “We’ve got friendly neighbours? Grow up.” – and produce one that is more dynamic, nuanced, balanced and in touch with what is happening in Malaysia.
After all, LKY could not have foreseen either the comeback of Mahathir or that, despite his so-called baggage with Singapore, the Malaysian leader may have moved on and has realised the indispensability of a more progressive New Malaysia, all the hiccups notwithstanding.
Maybe it is we who have to grow up and be less stuck in an old mode inflexible statecraft coloured by the biases of a bygone era.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.