Bridging Malaysia-Singapore relations over troubled waters

The seventh bilateral leaders’ retreat

Mustafa Izzuddin

Trade and industry, International relations, Science and technology | Asia, Southeast Asia

23 December 2016

From agreements on high-speed rail to deepening economic collaboration, the meeting between Najib Razak and Lee Hsien Loong was productive, constructive, and a model of bilateral relations, Mustafa Izzuddin writes.

Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held their seventh bilateral Leaders’ Retreat when Lee visited Putrajaya on 12 December. As with previous retreats, both leaders reviewed the past, emphasised the present, and prepared for the future of Malaysia-Singapore relations. So what, therefore, made this latest leaders’ retreat, in a series of otherwise rather mundane bilateral diplomatic meetings, particularly significant for the two countries?

The principal highlight was the signing of a legally binding bilateral agreement to launch the highly-publicised high-speed rail (HSR) project connecting Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. As the post-retreat joint leaders’ statement highlighted, the project seeks to “bring the two countries closer together, improve connectivity, deepen people-to-people ties, and catalyse further economic cooperation.” The HSR, which will be tendered in 2018 and is expected to be completed in 2026, can be seen as not only a cross-strait crown jewel but also the icing on the cake of a maturing partnership in Singapore-Malaysia relations under the leaderships of Najib and Lee.

The Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR project will also be a first-of-its-kind architectural marvel in Southeast Asia. As such, the entire project could serve as a blueprint for other ASEAN countries and incentivise them to emulate it by building either an intra (within an ASEAN country) or inter (between two or more ASEAN countries) HSR of their own. Embarking on multiple HSR projects is congruent with realising the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025.

Perhaps pre-empting antipathy to the HSR from critics, not least in light of the 1MDB controversy’s impact on public perception, it was decided at the outset by both countries that there would be sufficiently robust safeguards put in place to ensure fairness, transparency and accountability from the planning phase through to the implementation of the project. In this respect, tendering and jointly awarding the project, convening a joint bilateral project committee, and appointing a Joint Development Partner, also through a joint tender process, are prescient.

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The feel-good ambience built up over six previous retreats, principally behind closed doors and away from the glare of media publicity, made it conducive for both countries to better address bilateral concerns and negotiate bilateral solutions without the need for politicisation. It was a wide-ranging and far-reaching retreat covering topics ranging from deepening economic collaboration, including on Iskandar Malaysia, which is now in its tenth year and in which Singapore remains a major investor, to working together to ensure continued water supply from Malaysia to Singapore in the wake of receding water levels at Johor’s Linggiu Reservoir. Cooperating regionally on transboundary haze pollution, hastening progress on the Johor-Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System, and enhancing bilateral defence cooperation and multilateral contribution to regional security in light of growing threats to Southeast Asia were also discussed at the retreat.

The continued emphasis on cultural diplomacy deepened the relations between Malaysia and Singapore by helping to supplement the bilateral trust between the two countries. People-to-people exchanges were reaffirmed at the retreat, with both countries happy to augment their collaboration in the tourism sector, in the lead up to the Visit ASEAN@50 Golden Celebration in 2018. The proclivity of Malaysia and Singapore to showcase their rich cultural heritage, such as by proposing a triennial cultural festival, underscores the importance of culture to buttress cross-strait solidarity between the peoples of the two countries. As Singapore’s former Foreign Minister George Yeo opined, “we are still very much one people separated into two countries.”

This retreat is possibly the last before the next Malaysian general election, which is due in 2018 but it has been speculated could be held early, sometime in the middle of 2017. Just as Najib mentioned the HSR project in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition manifesto at the 2013 election, he is likely to do the same in the manifesto for the next one, with a twofold message. First, as a demonstration of the Najib government’s strong political leadership, ensuring progress has been made on the HSR since the last election, within the broader context of keeping Malaysia-Singapore relations on an even keel. Second, to showcase the domestic benefits the HSR will bring by enhancing people-to-people connectivity, investing in the towns and cities it will pass through, bolstering local economies through revenue generation and creating local jobs.

If Najib is returned to office, the HSR project is likely to stay on schedule. Even if there is a leadership change in his ruling UMNO party, the HSR project can likewise be expected to continue, and Malaysia-Singapore relations will also remain on an even keel. This is because most of the top cabinet ministers, one of whom may succeed Najib, have been involved in past and recent bilateral retreats.

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If, however, Najib’s ruling BN coalition is defeated, the HSR’s progress could be impeded for two reasons. One, Malaysia’s opposition coalition has stated they would like the project to be postponed until its feasibility and sustainability can be sufficiently proven. Others want the project to be scrapped altogether, as they feel the money would be better spent on improving the national interstate rail system, and thus directly benefiting many more Malaysians. Two, the volatile political situation following a potential BN defeat may well require the newly elected government to refocus their priorities domestically, resulting in the HSR being put on the backburner.

The centrality of political leadership, alongside mutual personal chemistry, was on full display with both Najib and Lee recognising there was more to gain by cooperation and leaving behind the vagaries of a history characterised by a paucity of diplomatic niceties. In Lee’s recent interview with Bernama News Agency, he noted that both he and Najib being children of former Prime Ministers was “a positive factor”, because it meant that they had been engaged in Malaysia-Singapore relations “for a very large part of our lives.”

That both leaders have invested an incredible amount of political will in making relations between their countries flourish suggests that neither wanted to turn the clock back to when antagonism was the prevailing norm, mostly under the prime ministership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It was a well-known fact that Mahathir and Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, did not see eye to eye. Confrontation has since been replaced by cooperation through consensus and consultation, a process that began with former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, and continued under Lee Hsien Loong and Najib Razak.

All in, this retreat underscored the deepening engagement in Malaysia-Singapore relations, notwithstanding any future skirmishes as would be expected between neighbours and societies with different demographical compositions and ways of thinking about governance. With the HSR deal now officially signed, the hope is that more of the bilateral differences will become water under the bridge. The joint aspiration must now be about building more friendship bridges through perfecting an existent cooperative and responsible Malaysia-Singapore partnership, premised on mutual trust, political will and smart strategic thinking.

The primary beneficiaries of positive political atmospherics between the governments of Malaysia and Singapore are their peoples, in economic, psychological and socio-cultural terms. The good news arising from the latest retreat is the political commitment of both governments, through their leaders, to sustain this relationship, which, in Najib’s words, “has never been better in our countries’ histories.” It is not far-fetched to argue that the model of conflict resolution adopted by the political elites of Malaysia and Singapore – the centrepiece of which is the Leaders’ Retreat – is worthy of emulation by other neighbouring countries faced with unresolved, and at times, thorny bilateral issues.

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Izzuddin, Mustafa. 2017. "Bridging Malaysia-Singapore Relations Over Troubled Waters - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/bridging-malaysia-singapore-relations-troubled-waters/.

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