THE National University of Singapore (NUS) has been praised for honouring Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in a heartwarming gesture that helps to further bond Singapore-Malaysia ties.
Former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan, a prominent political commentator, offered deserving pats-on-the-back for the “attention to detail it paid in organising the ceremony” where Tun Mahathir received an Honorary Doctor of Laws while his wife was given the Distinguished Alumni Service award.
“It had pomp and, more importantly, warmth in honouring its distinguished alumni. The welcome speech by the NUS president and the citation were formal yet personal,” wrote Mr Sadasivan in a forum letter in Saturday’s edition of The Straits Times, headlined, “Going beyond government-to-government ties with neighbours”.
Specifically, he noted: “Care was taken to ensure the audience comprised not only dignitaries but also individuals who had a relationship with Tun Dr Mahathir.”
He said that just before the ceremony, the university even arranged a gathering for the Malaysian PM to meet his old friends from medical college. He added: “Clearly, this meant very much to him and his wife. His appreciation was palpable in his acceptance speech. He said he will value this award for the rest of his life.”
Mr Sadasivan, 59, who was a NMP in the Parliament of Singapore from 2009 to 2011, noted that despite Tun Mahathir’s sometimes perceived thorny ties with Singapore, “events like these help to reframe relationships and make them less sharp…differences are allowed to thaw”.
And it is august occasions like this that will allow leaders on both sides of the Causeway to be more open to reconciliation.
“They remind leaders of the splendour of the larger canvas against which imperfections are dotted,” wrote Mr Sadasivan. “We tend to forget that political leaders are human. We need to recognise the in-built limitation of government-to-government relations.”
It’s common knowledge that Malaysia-Singapore ties became somewhat thorny after Tun Mahathir returned to power in the May general election. Leaders of both government sparred publicly through the media over issues old and new, ranging from the water price, construction of the “crooked bridge,” and the High-Speed Rail project.
WARMER TIES WITH MALAYSIA
But political commentators have rightly noted that the bilateral relationship is warmer than the first Mahathir administration under Barisan Nasional and when the late Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister of Singapore.
Tun Mahathir also said in a recent Istana meeting with PM Lee Hsien Loong that Malaysia and Singapore cannot avoid having differences and will remain in a state of competition.
“There will be some differences, there will also be competition…but the competition is always healthy. It helps us to make an effort, to win. It only helps us to grow even faster,” he said.
In further strong messages in his forum letter, Mr Sadasivan reiterated that here must be a continuous give-and-take harmony in relationships between the two closest neighbours. He said: “Governed by the need to further specific national interests, they have to be task-driven. This is why such negotiations tend to be binary. Softening ties is important, but hard to achieve.”
Mr Sadasivan has been extensively involved in public service for more than two decades. He has served as the Chairman of the Political Development Feedback Group of Singapore’s Feedback Unit, and as Vice-President and Secretary of the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) Executive Committee. He has also served on the Media Development Authority’s Board, the Singapore 21 Committee, Economic Review Committee, Remaking Singapore Committee, and the National Youth Achievement Award Council.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIP TRACKS
He urged the two governments to be receptive to the “need to be more committed to building and deepening alternative relationship tracks, where the modus operandi is discourse, not negotiation”.
“The tracks can be based on business, alumni, sports, non-governmental organisations or even hobby-based relationships,” he noted. “Singapore and our immediate neighbours’ historical and kinship ties are deep, and relationships are multifaceted with revolving doors between them.”
Pointedly, Mr Sadasivan says a continuing cordial partnership “can help soften the ground and nudge political leaders away from hardline positions, towards shared interests”.