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MGG: Malaysia-Singapore: What the future beckons
By M.G.G. Pillai

12/4/2002 12:25 pm Fri

At no time since 1965, when Singapore left Malaysia to be independent, has so many issues raised the ante in bilateral ties. The bilateral temperature is raised more now than ever. The 11 September fallout gave Singapore an unrivalled opportunity to rein in both its more cacaphonous Chinese-speaking Chinese as well as its local Malay minority. In Malaysia, the government used it to rein in its opposition, specifically PAS and the fundamentalist Muslim quarter, which paradoxically became more agitative and confrontational. But the actions of each raised tensions between the two countries as well.

The issues that worsened it was, in one sense, a defensive reaction to re-establish its threatened links with its own constituency because it could not put the minority down. So, the tudung affair in Singapore brought forth an immediate reaction in the reclamation works at Pulau Tekong in Singapore. The Malaysians upped the ante to point to the unequal nature of its water agreement with Singapore. Tit for tat actions were taken, each in its own newspapers subtly, sometimes not so, pointing to the faults of the other. That the two countries were also considering purchases of tanks and supersonic aircraft raised the ante but it also revealed the jockeying for position of its own next generation of leaders.

So miffed at this press war (for that is what it was, using the newspapers to keep its own support intact by pointing to the faults of the other, and warn the other of the rising anger of their actions) that a PAP youth leader attacked Malaysian newspapers for its raising-tension coverage. Malaysian politicians have the same accusations against Singapore newspapers and it is one that both. for their own reasons, decide to live with. The Malaysian newspapers were up in arms at this attack, and it was, with some surprise to those who did not know the underlying attempt at a rapprochement, the UMNO youth leader and federal cabinet minister, Dato' Hishamuddin Hussein, who did not want to make an issue of it.

Shortly after, the Singapore deputy prime minister and Mr Lee's elder son, Brig.-Gen. Lee Hsien Loong, came on an extended trip to Malaysia. It was not as of visits past. This time, he spent more time with the Hishamuddin generation of future leaders. There was more to it than met the eye. As there was of Dato' Seri Hishamuddin's defence of the PAP youth leader's criticism of the Malaysian press.

Bilateral ties are now part of the succession in each. However one looks at the Malaysian and Singapore succession, it is predicated to what the dominant leader in each wants. But there are rumblings on the ground, in both, at being forced to accept the one he has chosen. There is as much concern it would be BG Lee in Singapore as it would be the deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in Malaysia. The politicking on who would be prime minister after Mr Goh Chok Tong in Singapore and Dr Mahathir in Malaysia has begun. And each strengthens his position by forging links with like-minded forces in the other.

At the same time, reality strikes in both Malaysia and Singapore. The economic downturn, the political uncertainties, even the publicly verboten belief in each that without the other they limp along, has brought a reality check in the immediate tension all this has caused. There is serious debate within the PAP and the Chinese community about Singapore's role in a future in which the growing Islamic pressures in Indonesia and Malaysia could squeeze the republic in. Malaysia's anger at the Pulau Tekong reclamation is only part of the story. It is seen here as a reaction to Malaysia's attempts to build its own port facilities for no reason than to spite Singapore. The Pulau Tekong reclamation is, in the view of some in Malaysia, its tit for tat.

There is a view in both Malaysia and Singapore that each has mismanaged its ties with the other. The arrogant postures of each are not now sustainable, one for not thinking through its actions, and the other for looking at bilateral in cold, calculating, mathematical terms in which the human element is deliberately torn out.

In the decades ahead, this could either draw them further apart or bring them closer. What makes the later option more likely is the growing fear of both the young Malaysian and the young Singaporean of their giant neighbour, Indonesia, where her younger generation looks at its role in the Nusantara as an emperor looks at its lost prized jewels of his domain. Both are unhappy at this, and the views grows, however imperceptibly, that each must submerge its mutual cultural antipathy to the other and join hands to challenge a bigger threat in its midst.

M.G.G. Pillai