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MGG: A bilateral hiccup raises the ire in Singapore and Malaysia
By M.G.G. Pillai

6/2/2002 9:46 pm Wed

15-28 February 2002

A bilateral hiccup raises the ire in Singapore and Malaysia

Malaysia-Singapore ties cannot be much better nor much worse than now so long as it is seen by one to score points on the other not in the national interest but to justify the mental baggage of past cultural hurt, racial antagonism and xenophobia. Neither would accept this view, but it is this that makes for accommodation difficult. The two countries view issues differently, one with a slide rule in hand and the other rather less scientifically. Each looks upon the other as the problem, and the level of hysteria in one capital is linked to the advantage slipping to the other side.

Within this frame, the current spat in bilateral ties, and Malaysia's overreaction over the price of water Singapore pays reflects not justice on Kuala Lumpur's position but that Singapore now has the upper hand. It is Kuala Lumpur that does the running while not so long ago it was Singapore. So one should expect Kuala Lumpur to raise issues over how Malays are treated in the republic, and see in every Singapore action towards Malaysia or Singapore Malays a call for action.

What caused the present spat is an unexpected Malaysian demand that Singapore ought to pay far more than the contractual price for water it acquired from Malaysia. The Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, said since Hong Kong is paying China RM9 per 1,000 gallons, he implied that Singapore ought to as well. He was making a point to firm his local Malay base, preparing the ground for general elections probably as early as next year.

Singapore now pays three sen per 1,000 gallons of untreated water and sells treated water to Johore at 50 sen, under agreements that will run out in 2061. Malaysia had asked for 60 sen for untreated water under the present agreements, but Singapore countered, last Decament, with an immediate rise of 45 sen or 15 times the current rate, and 60 sen after 2061. Singapore made the offer in December but Malaysia has yet to respond.

In raising the ante, Dr Mahathir also misread history: he suggested the low rates were because Malaysia had a loaded gun to its head when the agreements were negotiated in 1961 because 'Singapore was then a colony'. It was not. It was internally self-governing status then, and they were signed amidst plans for Singapore to join the proposed federal of Malaysia.

It is not water alone that skewers bilateral ties. Malaysia wants a bridge to replace the causeway. Singapore disagrees. So, Malaysia is committed to build half a bridge that would link to the Singapore side of the causeway. It makes no sense, and this sudden interest in ecological concerns and allow water to flow from one side of the causeway to the other is not sustainable.

A few years ago, Malaysia had wanted to build a waterfront city on its side of the Straits of Johore, one which Dr Mahathir enthusiastically supported. That fell by the wayside when the company promoting it was sold to Singapore interests. Malaysia has not thought through the project, and the more one looks at it the more cock-eyed it looks.

There is more. Malaysia messed up its discussions with Singapore over the railway land. At one stage, it even questioned Singapore's right to puts its entry point into the republic at the Woodlands, and insisted the old arrangements at the railway terminus at Tanjong Pagar should remain. Singapore held its ground. Then it wanted the right to develop the railway land, but lost that when Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) was privatised, and the land suddenly was no more Malaysia's.

The land had been alienated for a government-run railway network; when KTM was privatised, the land in Singapore reverted to the state. But the cockups did not stop there. Malaysia now wanted a tunnel for the railway. It would cost billions of ringgit before that could be built, for doubtful gains. Malaysia should have accepted Singapore's offer to jointly develop the railway land, but Kuala Lumpur questioned that.

Malaysia shoots itself in the foot so regularly that Singaporeans must be having a quiet laugh. Decisions are made not with thought and serious discussion but off the cuff for political advantage. It wants the bridge for a half-baked military view that in the event of hostilities, it is easier to blow it up, as the Australians did when hostilities broke out at the start of the Second World War, and the drawbrdge was not brought back after the war.

Kuala Lumpur has lost ground so consistently in recent years that the level of bombast rises with each new claim. So, one is not surprised that Malaysia questioned Singapore's right to force Muslim pupils to wear the "tudung", the head scarf. Singapore held its ground, but it imposed this with a clear aim of taunting the Malays. That it came amidst the global war of terror against, to not put a fine point to it, Islam is not missed.

These are but a few issues which dictate Malaysia-Singapore ties. They will not go away. They cannot. Both use them to keep the other in check. And they are useful to keep the pot boiling when it must. But the intensity of how each views it depends on who holds the upper hand. It is Singapore now. It was Malaysia not so long ago. And it was Singapore before that. Singaporean and Malaysian officials insist that bilateral ties are not dictated by cultural and racial xenophobia. Neither could or would admit it is.

Why relations between the two can never be more cordial than it is, at any time, is the subconscious belief in each capital of their racial minority in the other is held to ransom in the search for a modus vivendi. Both can bring trenchant arguments to suggest otherwise, but remove this and bilateral ties would take a leap forward. But neither can. And more of this suspicion and a hurt at the other's perfidy, right or wrong, is what would dictate it. -- MGG

M.G.G. Pillai