SINGAPORE (Dec 10): When CNN dubbed the Singapore version of chendol one of the top 50 desserts in the world this past week, Malaysians reacted with predictable outrage. And, the bitterness over the sweet dessert quickly proved to be an ill omen for bilateral relations between Malaysia and Singapore. Now, Malaysia wants to reclaim the management of airspace over south Johor, while Singapore is protesting the intrusion of Malaysian vessels into its territorial waters.

The first sign of trouble brewing came on Nov 23, when some passengers of Malaysia Airlines subsidiary Firefly were told via SMS that flights to and from Singapore would be suspended from Dec 1. Singapore wants to shift all turboprop flights from Changi Airport to Seletar, but the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia had not given Firefly the go-ahead to shift.

On Dec 4, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke announced plans to take back “full control” of the airspace over southern Johor, which has been managed by Singapore under an international agreement for the past 44 years. He cited national sovereignty and hindrance to development plans of the Pasir Gudang area as reasons.

On the same day, Singapore announced that Malaysian “government vessels” had repeatedly intruded into Singapore’s waters for over a fortnight. This came after Malaysia’s unilateral move to extend Johor’s port limits into Singapore waters on Oct 25.

The return of Dr Mahathir Mohamad following a watershed general election that ousted the corrupt Najib Razak government had some observers in Singapore worrying that relations with its northern neighbour would turn bumpy. Indeed, it wasn’t long before old, thorny issues such as water price hikes and a replacement “crooked bridge” were resurrected.

Many in Singapore see the latest episodes as Malaysia’s need for a foreign bogeyman to hold itself together. Bilahari Kausikan, the famously vocal former Singapore diplomat, calls Malaysia’s new governing coalition “intrinsically unstable” and reliant on the leadership of Mahathir. “So, wish the good doctor good health and long life: It may well be worse without him.”

Yet, Pakatan Harapan’s election victory in May was convincing, even if it was unexpected by everyone, including Singapore’s leaders. And, while Mahathir has had to tread carefully around the issues of race and religion, there appears to be broad support for his government’s efforts to tackle the economic mess left behind by Najib’s monumental corruption. “So far, there are no indications that there is domestic pressure from the people to the extent that the Mahathir government had to resort to foreign policy issues,” says Dr Norshahril Saat of ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute. “Creating another issue in the foreign policy front would be a distraction for them.”

Could Singapore be underestimating the determination of Malaysia on the airspace and territorial waters issues? Should Singapore try adopting a different tack in managing its relations with Malaysia?

One reason bilateral issues such as airspace and water keep cropping up is simply that many Malaysians feel — rightly or wrongly — that they are constantly being unfairly bested by Singapore. CNN’s highlighting of the Singapore version of chendol rather than the Malaysian one is a case in point. While everything from chicken rice to bak kut teh and now chendol might taste better in Malaysia, it is often Singapore that is cited as the home of these delicious dishes. Why? Perhaps it is because more people in the world have heard of Singapore than Malaysia.

Obviously, Malaysians should just get over it. But it would be a mistake for Singapore to attribute its prickly relations with its neighbour to little more than Malaysia’s new leadership.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 860, week of Dec 10) which is on sale now. Subscribe here