SINGAPORE (Dec 17): It is probably safe to say now that Dr Mahathir Mohamad has not changed his attitude towards Singapore. And, for as long as he is prime minister of Malaysia, bilateral relations between the two countries are likely to be rocky.

Over the past few weeks, Malaysia has complained about Singapore’s plan to introduce an Instrument Landing System at Seletar Airport, on the grounds it would result in planes flying at a low enough altitude over Pasir Gudang to impede the development of the industrial area. On the other hand, Singapore is outraged by Malaysia “unilaterally and arbitrarily” extending the Johor Bahru port limits into its waters. Malaysian vessels have also repeatedly encroached into Singapore waters.

Most observers have little doubt that the two matters are related. Lawrence Loh, deputy head of strategy and policy department at the National University of Singapore, likens these moves to the hardball negotiating tactics US President Donald Trump has adopted in negotiating trade deals with other countries. “He wants a better deal from Singapore. Everything else is on the table now — airspace and water, two raw nerves for Singapore,” Loh says.

Yet, just as Trump’s anti-immigration stance and rants against “globalists” has emboldened racist and xenophobes in the US, Mahathir’s hardline approach to dealing with Singapore could well give licence to chauvinists on both sides of the Causeway to hark back to a past that ought to be forgotten. Indeed, it might already be happening, judging from Facebook comments that follow postings of news stories about the current tensions. One particularly succinct comment reads: “If land is the issue, why did you leave in the first place?”

Malaysia and Singapore should not allow unresolved separation angst dating back more than half a century to deter them from charting a new future. Indeed, they seemed to be well on the way to doing so, after Mahathir stepped down back in 2003. In particular, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak sought closer and more cordial ties with Singapore. James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, explains that Najib’s purpose was to draw foreign direct investment from Singapore and other regional countries. “A lot of the western FDIs during the Najib era disappeared. He wanted to find other FDI. He was looking at Asean and Singapore as an alternative to Western FDI,” Chin says.

Now, Mahathir’s second time around as Malaysia’s prime minister is coinciding with the emergence of Singapore’s new crop of so-called 4G leaders. To be sure, they might never actually have to contend with Mahathir directly. Some of them are literally only slightly more than half his age. And, at any rate, Mahathir has pledged to hand over the post of prime minister to Anwar Ibrahim after two years. For Singapore’s 4G leaders, their long-term counterparts in Malaysia are more likely to be the likes of Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, aged 54; and Transport Minister Anthony Loke, aged 41. 

Loke has, of course, been playing a high-profile role in the current bilateral spat, an experience that could well provide him with valuable experience for the future. Some observers doubt he is acting alone, though. According to one commentator on Facebook, “Anthony Loke is only a puppet with the master Tun [Mahathir] telling him what to say all the time, even though it’s rubbish.” Ouch.

So, what does all this mean for business? Several observers who spoke to our reporters this past week said bilateral relations between Malaysia and Singapore are ultimately too important to ever be allowed to fail. Moreover, Malaysians and Singaporeans have extensive business and personal links on opposite sides of the Causeway, points out Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank. “When you have this kind of people-to-people exchanges, both sides grow closer together and not further apart. Malaysia and Singapore have more and more in common. This is something that I think will ensure the minor disputes will not threaten the long-term relationship.”

Eddin Khoo, a Malaysian historian and director of cultural organisation Pusaka, says the corporate sector ought to look at what is happening with some perspective. “The business community... they seem to be very prone to panic with every single thing that has been done. And sometimes, they over-exaggerate issues. A more historical understanding of not just Malaysia and Singapore, but the psychology [that has shaped the relations], would be good.”

Our reporters and editors have sought to provide exactly that in this issue’s cover story, login to read here.

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