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Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat: What’s at stake?

There has been some friction between the two countries specifically in relation to the water issue as well as air and space territorial disputes all of which are expected to be addressed during the meeting




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Putrajaya—”We have much to discuss. Look forward to a fruitful meeting with PM Mahathir tomorrow,” wrote Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post on April 8, Monday, the eve of the ninth Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat.

A meeting between PM Lee and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Tun Mahathir Mohamad had been scheduled for November 2018 but was postponed.

This retreat happens to be the first one that the Pakatan Harapan Government is hosting, since winning the General Election in May 2018. Instituted by the predecessor of Dr Mahathir, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, the meeting is meant to be a venue for candid discussions on bilateral issues and to strengthen cooperation between the two nations.

On Tuesday morning, April 9, PM Lee and Dr Mahathir are scheduled to have a bilateral meeting, followed by a delegation meeting along with the ministers and senior officials who are with the Prime Minister at the retreat.

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Accompanying PM Lee are nine cabinet ministers: Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean; Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan; Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan; Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran; Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat; Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu; Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing; Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong; and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.

What’s at stake in this meeting

According to Dr Mahathir, all “unresolved issues” between the two nations will be discussed at the meetings.

Tensions brewed between Singapore and Malaysia last year, building up towards the end of 2018, especially due to air and space territorial disputes.

However, just before the Leaders’ Retreat, the two countries displayed a note of friendliness when officials declared they were taking a “prosper thy neighbour” strategy in addressing tensions. Despite barbs back and forth in public, observers believe that both nations made a commitment to continue talking over issues.

The day before the meeting was to start, on Monday, April 8, Singapore’s Khaw Boon Wan and Malaysia’s Anthony Loke, who are the Transport Ministers of their respective countries, said that the talks they’ve been having have had a “win-win” result for both maritime and airspace disputes.

Singapore consented to withdraw the Instrument Landing System (ILS) for its airport in Seletar, which Malaysia has been unhappy with due to potential problems in Johor’s development. The two nations are looking into using a global positioning system (GPS) instead.

And for the maritime issue, both nations are currently suspending their claims to disputed waters.

Concerning the high-speed rail project between the two countries, Singapore has agreed to delay the initiative for the time being. The project, which had been signed during former PM Najib’s tenure, is under review by the Mahathir government.

Perhaps the water issue will be one of the bigger, and perhaps the most contentious issue on the table. Since territorial disputes are finding a resolution, the water issue may be the most significant issue, especially with Dr Mahathir repeatedly and publicly declaring that the price of water sold by Malaysia to Singapore is “ridiculously” low.

Singapore claims that Malaysia can no longer negotiate water prices since it declined to renew this years ago.

Malaysia disagrees with this, and Dr Mahathir has recently said he is open to third-party arbitration in resolving the issue.

Leadership transitions

It is also likely that both countries want the transitions to new leadership to be as smooth as possible, keeping an eye on the next elections, which will occur in the not-so-distant future, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports.

PM Lee, who said that he will step down by the age of 70, has seemingly chosen his heir apparent in the country’s Finance Minister, Heng Swee Keat. It is noteworthy that Mr Heng, along with six other 4G leaders, are with PM Lee at the leadership retreat.

Meanwhile, during his campaign last year, Dr Mahathir said that in two years he would pass the leadership baton to Anwar Ibrahim, who has been both his Deputy Prime Minister as well as his chief rival in the past.

Read related: PM Lee to meet with Dr Mahathir at Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat on April 8-9


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