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MGG: Malaysia-Singapore: Politicking fuels an uneasy relationship
By M.G.G. Pillai

12/4/2002 12:27 pm Fri

Bilateral ties between Malaysia and Singapore is conditional on the premise that neither can live with each other nor can she afford not to. Linked with a three-quarter-mile causeway and a second bridge link, the seeming hostility and parodoxical friendship is strengthened, or strained, by the fact of the majority race in one is the minority in the other. Both governments are quick to harp on the treatment of the minority in the other in any bilateral spat. Complicating it is the contradictory worldview of each. One views it in cultural and traditional terms, the other in a no-nonsense commercial and factual terms. Add to this the unmentioned xenophobia of both the Malay and the Chinese, and you have a volatile mix of causes to resolve which a steady diet of politicking eggs on.

It does not end there. The internal mechanics of each requires the taming of its minority race in ways that redound on the majority in the other. In other words, internal political arrangements automatically become a matter of political uncertainty in the other. What has kept this from not going to the boil is the unwritten belief in each that no matter how badly or tough the current state of relationship, the leaders at the last minute defuse it. It works every time. Almost.

The politicking increases by the year. The two countries have known no governments except that of their dominant political parties -- UMNO as leader of the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Malaysia, and the People's Action Party in Singapore. The UMNO-led coalition, first as the Alliance and later as the Barisan Nasional, has been in office since 1955, two years before Malaya got its independence. The PAP has dominated the Singapore political scene since 1959, negotiated for a merger with the larger Malaysia in 1963. But the two xenophobically-inclined races could not live side by side, each presuming the other's subservience, and partied company in 1965.

The separation was, in a sense, a failure for both. Neither could, like the Hindus of India and the Muslims of Pakistan, steal a march over the other, for what happened reflected the failure of each's policy towards the other and in their ability to work and live together. The four-decades since brought a relationship in which one gains the advantage only to lose it. This alone is enough to call for constant politicking. They are linked not only by a common heritage of British colonial rule but a commonality of worldviews, which because of the inherent xenophobia, is one that blows hot and cold according to the situation.

There are common issues too: Singapore still depends on Malaysia to provide its water. It is a perennial issue for bad blood between the two, especially when Malaysian political groups raise the question of what Singapore pays for its raw water and the seemingly high profit it makes out of it. But it has no more an impact than a little local political difficulty in which the tempers arise in both.

One reason why this politicking has not gone further than one could anticipate, given the apparent hostility that surfaces on these occasions, is the closeness and personal friendships of leaders in both countries. All were educated in the United Kingdom or Singapore. Malaysia's second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, and Singapore's senior Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, were classmates at Singapore's Raffles College, at the outbreak of the Second World War. And this was true down the line.

So, why is bilateral politicking now taking an apparent turn for the worse? The new generation of leaders in both countries did not have that interraction the founding fathers had; they were also educated with a presumed belief in the other's shortcomings, one in which the xenophobia was unconsciously, even subconsciously, implanted in their minds. This brought to the ruling elite another subconscious element: the implied presumption that the leaders could point to the minority within their borders to keep the majority in line. The fear of the Malay, implied or otherwise, is as potent a political force in Singapore as the fear of the Chinese is in Malaysia.

What complicates, in the immediate term, is the passing of the baton to the new generation of leaders. There is an ordered succession in both, at least on paper, but one held together by the dominance of the respective leader in each: Dr Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia and Mr Lee in Singapore. The intense politicking one sees in the one is replicated in the other, for within the second generation the succession is far from clear. And both slip. The tudung affair in Singapore causes as many problems for the Singapore authorities as the Anwar Ibrahim episode in Malaysia. It has split the dominant communities in each, and looks upon politicking as the only means to keep its respective supporters in check.

M.G.G. Pillai