Malaysia’s post-independence relationship with Singapore has been volatile at most times. Bilateral relations have experienced a roller coaster ride after a painful separation in 1965 due to political differences in managing communalism. This relationship was especially cold during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s era as Prime Minister but later reversed under his successor Abdullah Badawi.
This has since bloomed with the current Prime Minister Najib Razak developing a much closer relationship with his counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, even tweeting to ask if he was feeling well. This piece looks into how the Malaysian-Singapore relations have improved in the post-Mahathir era, taking into account different factors that came into play in developing this relationship between neighbours in Southeast Asia.
Despite the strained relations between Malaysia and Singapore after 1965, their common histories resemble a complex love-hate relationship. The shared geographical proximity, and historical and cultural linkages made Singapore and Malaysia mutually dependent to each other.
Some observers argued that Singapore and Malaysia were and are drawn to each other not only for economic and trade factors but also their common security interests. This created a unique bilateral relationship where despite their history, they needed to cooperate with each other to achieve national and regional survival. This special relationship continued to oversee the Malaysia-Singapore relations in the new millennium.
Worsening Relations in the Mahathir Era
However, this did not necessarily meant good relations prevailed since Singapore’s independence. Malaysia-Singapore ties came under stormy weather during Mahathir’s premiership. Throughout this period, both Malaysia and Singapore had many long-standing issues, such as the Pedra Branca (Pulau Batu Puteh) dispute, the Points of Agreement (POA) on KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu or Malayan Railway Land), the Central Provident Funds (CPF) for Malaysians workers, the use of Malaysia’s airspace by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) facilities at Tanjong Pagar railway station, the Johor water agreement and a bridge to replace the Causeway.
The POA on KTM signed in 1990 between the two countries continued to be a sore point in bilateral relations because of disagreements over its interpretation. The issue of ownership of Pedra Branca and its surrounding islands was a constant irritant in their bilateral ties up until its decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Malaysia’s ban on low over-flight space for Singapore military aircraft since 1998 and Singapore’s open mobilisation of its military in 1991 suggested that mutual anxieties and suspicions haunted the relationship at that time. There was much unhappiness in the air on both sides of the Causeway, not at governmental levels but also in the public. For example, the Singaporean contingent to the Southeast Asia (SEA) Games in Kuala Lumpur in 2001 was booed during the march-past in the opening ceremony.
The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis exacerbated the tensions between both countries. Malaysia’s decision in the wake of the financial crisis to repatriate its local currency held abroad, its unilateral decision to impose capital control and Mahathir’s suggestion to close down the Singapore share market to better control the free-falling Ringgit at the time also worsened the relations.
When the financial crisis had hit Southeast Asia, it seemed that the Johor water issue was close to a resolution especially after Singapore extended financial assistance for Malaysia to recapitalise its banking sector and underwrite its growing budget deficit. However, the agreement lapsed when there was later disagreement over the water supply. Singapore was criticised by Malaysians for not offering sufficient assistance to its neighbour.
Further turbulence occurred when both countries’ governments failed to resolve a number of issues despite many rounds of negotiations at the senior officials’ level, leading to the general public speculating about the bitter exchanges between the top officials of both countries. At that point, it seemed that this relationship could never be salvaged.
Thawing relations in subsequent administrations
When Mahathir resigned and transitioned power to his handpicked successor Abdullah, one have normally expected him to continue the policies of the past. However, regular meetings and official visits between both countries following Abdullah’s ascension in 2003 symbolised quite the opposite and in fact, a marked improvement in the Malaysia-Singapore relations.
Correspondences were intensified as Abdullah revived and injected greater emphasis on governmental collaborations, leading to instantaneous spillover effects in the improvement of public relations between both countries. Abdullah even managed to obtain the participation of Singapore in the Iskandar Malaysia project in south Johor, which economically complemented both sides of Causeway.
After coming to power in 2009, Najib has also implemented a similar strategy to Abdullah with regards to his Singapore policies. He emphasised on working more with his Singaporean counterpart as well as building stronger cooperation to nourish the bilateral relations between both countries.
The mood became encouraging when Najib managed to clear one major obstacle in implementing the POA in 2010. The 20-year-old impasse since 1990, which involved the shift of the railway land owned by the Malaysian Government through KTM in Singapore, became a major watershed in Malaysia-Singapore relations. As a result, anti-Singapore sentiments have largely ceased and instead become more jovial.
The POA settlement is one of the many examples of the now excellent relations between both countries. The Johor water issue is no longer a bone of contention since Singapore is now able to find alternative supplies of water.
Other favourable developments in Malaysia-Singapore relations include the holding of the annual leaders’ retreats, more cross-border trading of securities between the Malaysian and Singapore stock exchanges, Malaysia offering to sell electricity to Singapore, the agreement to build the high-speed rail (HSR) link from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, the amicable post-Pedra Branca technical talks to resolve legacy issues over the islands’ dispute and finally, the launch of the rapid transit system (RTS) connecting Johor Bahru and Singapore.
Undoubtedly, the warmer bilateral relations have been generated due to the different foreign policy approaches taken compared to the Mahathir era, higher trade figures and investment flows, more exchanges and visits, and intensified collaboration in different areas. Without being weighed down by historical baggage, the leaders from both sides have come together for shared prosperity and wealth.
Many observers have emphasised that the leadership transitions from Mahathir to Abdullah and then Najib had radically altered Malaysia’s attitude towards Singapore. Both Abdullah and Najib presented a more moderate posture, which differs from the confrontational Mahathir. The current leaders have based pragmatism and cooperation over emotional and irrational attachments previously adopted by Mahathir and former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Factors in developing Malaysian-Singapore ties
Without a doubt, the Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew factors contributed profoundly on the bilateral relations between Malaysia and Singapore. This is a result from the interplay of their personalities, leadership styles, political philosophies and their brands of nationalism.
Despite their strong fundamental differences in political ideology, both Mahathir and Lee were known to be pragmatic, realistic and objective when dealing with issues such as national development and integration between both countries. Both were also heavily influenced by what had happened before 1965 since they were from that particular era. This led to the most volatile and complicated relationship between any members of ASEAN.
Post-Mahathirism has since seen the de-personalisation of Malaysia’s international relations as its foreign policy transitioned from being a personal domain of the alpha male Mahathir to more routine-like decision-making procedures.
Abdullah pursued a more ‘principled foreign policy’ approach in which multilateralism was rehabilitated as an inclusive concept from the ideologically-biased connotation it bore under Mahathir’s tenure, which was based on the polarisation of the international community. This also emerged from Lee Hsien Loong, proving that the special relationship was no longer based on ‘personal diplomacy’ between Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir but had become institutionalised.
Abdullah and Najib have taken the edge off Mahathir’s assertive foreign policy, resulting in friendlier relations with Singapore though at the cost of losing some of its international profile previously gained through the controversial methods of Mahathir.
Abdullah embarked on a series of cooperative initiatives and Najib followed suit, developing a win-win situation with Lee Hsien Loong in resolving all outstanding issues between Malaysia and Singapore. The de-personalisation of foreign policy under Abdullah, a process that has continued under Najib, was a major break as quiet diplomacy replaced from the megaphone diplomacy of the past.
There are other factors to consider besides leadership changes for this warmer relations between Malaysia and Singapore. Following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, security forces from both countries have worked closely to secure their borders and prevent terrorism in their respective countries and the region.
They have worked hand-in-hand to stem the danger of international terrorism linked to al-Qaeda operatives in the region. Aside from cooperating on the security front against religious extremism and regional terrorism, both countries have worked in tandem to prevent the spread of diseases particularly when the SARS outbreak had first happened in Singapore.
Globalisation and competition from China and India in the 21st century also gave both countries greater causes to move beyond their past and towards economic cooperation, as reflected in developments in the Iskandar region and the HSR agreement. All of this combined have helped made Malaysia-Singapore ties warmer in the new century.
A better relationship fostered
It is undeniable that following the departure of political giants like Lee Kuan Yew and especially Mahathir, the bilateral relations between Malaysia and Singapore improved dramatically to where it is now. The leadership changes especially in Malaysia have been instrumental in changing the course of foreign policy of both nations into one that is pragmatic and cooperative unhindered by their past history.
Some recent developments, however, might change this. Malaysia recently filed for a revision of the ICJ’s decision on the Pedra Branca issue and the 1Malaysia Development Bank (1MDB) case leading to conviction of one banker and the closing down of a bank in Singapore might strain relations across the Causeway. Further developments on these issues would be needed before coming to any conclusion but as of now, it is expected for Malaysia and Singapore to maintain a close relationship for the foreseeable future.
Amanda Yeo is currently an associate with the ASEAN Economic Forum. Currently, she graduated with a MSc in International Relations in S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) while serving as Vice-President (Students) for RSIS Student Board 2016/2017. She also takes an active role in the TEDx community such as TEDxNTU and TEDxYouth@KL 2017. She is on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Amantaakatah) and tweets @yanyinyeo.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.