By Keith Zhai
The man who once called Singaporeans a “selfish lot” has returned.
Nearly 15 years after he stepped down, Mahathir Mohamad is at the age of 92 again in charge in Malaysia, having pulled off a stunning election upset. But has he changed from the leader who defied the world by pegging his country’s currency in the late 1990s, tussled with the International Monetary Fund and was prone to public attacks on everyone from currency traders to Jews?
That question is particularly pertinent for neighboring Singapore, which had a fractious relationship with Mahathir during his stint in power from 1981 to 2003. The bluntly-spoken Mahathir famously sparred with then-Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew to the point of accusing him of going “through the formalities” of being democratic.
While the countries carefully built a rapport in the years after Mahathir stepped down, there remains a brittle undertone to the relationship. Mahathir’s plans to review Malaysia’s big ticket infrastructure projects could put fresh scrutiny on a planned high-speed rail link that Singapore is pushing.
“Singapore will have to adapt to new personalities in Malaysia,” said Brian Harding, deputy director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. defense official specializing on Singapore. “The big question for Malaysia’s foreign relations is whether Mahathir has changed as Malaysia and the world have changed over the past twenty years.”
The acrimony between Singapore and Malaysia predated Mahathir. After more than 140 years under British rule, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia in September 1963, but left less than two years later amid ideological differences. The split left Lee in tears on national television.
Under Mahathir and Lee the countries bickered frequently, over everything from the price Singapore paid for Malaysia’s water (in 2003 Singapore took out full-page advertisements in regional newspapers highlighting its case in the spat), to disputed territory, the use of Malaysian-owned railway land in Singapore, and Mahathir’s unsuccessful push for a new bridge between the countries.
“In my 22 years as prime minister, we tried very hard to be a good friend to Singapore,” Mahathir said in 2006. “But they are a selfish lot, it was impossible to be a good friend with them.” After Lee died, Mahathir said they “crossed swords” many times but “there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation.”
Lee in 1997 angered Mahathir by saying the Malaysian state of Johor, which is linked to Singapore by a causeway, was “notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings.” He later apologized.
Ties improved after Mahathir stepped down, particularly between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — Lee Kuan Yew’s son — and the recently-ousted Najib Razak. They held leaders’ retreats and settled some long-running disputes.
The countries are each other’s second-biggest two-way trading partners. But while the main ethnic group in Singapore is Chinese, in Malaysia it is Malays. Mahathir said Saturday he wanted good relations with all countries as Malaysia is a trade-dependent nation.
Mahathir joined opposition parties to last week sweep away the Barisan Nasional coalition, which had been in power for 61 years, a third of them under his own stewardship. He said before the election he would make way for jailed opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim after Anwar is pardoned by the King. Anwar could be freed as soon as Tuesday.
Still, the prospect of even a short period back in office could leave Singapore’s leaders cautious, and it’s unclear when or how Mahathir might actually hand over to Anwar.
“We are following the situation closely. As Malaysia’s closest neighbour, we have a vested interest in Malaysia’s stability and prosperity,” Lee said on Facebook on Thursday. The next day he posted again, saying he hoped to “catch up” in person with Mahathir soon. The foreign ministry later released a letter Lee sent to Mahathir noting the long history of ties. “I am confident that under your leadership, our two countries can find ways to further strengthen and deepen the bilateral relationship,” Lee said.
Mahathir’s pick for finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, said at a weekend briefing the government wanted to review all contracts “that are not in favor or do not benefit Malaysia.”
On the flipside, it remains to be seen if Mahathir plans to resuscitate his prior efforts for a new bridge linking the countries.
In 2002, he proposed building a “half-bridge” to Singapore’s side of the causeway after failing to get Singapore to agree to a new bridge. The next year, he decided to proceed with the construction of the so-called “crooked bridge.” But his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, scrapped the project in 2006 to avoid political and legal disputes between the nations.
“When the government decided not to build the bridge, I felt that we had lost our sovereignty,” Mahathir said in 2006. “When we have to ask Singapore for approval to do things on our side, we have therefore lost our independence.”
The biggest joint project now is the planned high-speed rail link. Singapore has called tenders for the design and construction of tunnels for its end of the project, aiming to start construction in 2019. Completion is targeted for 2026, from an initial estimate of 2020.
The decision by voters in Malaysia to evict the coalition in power since independence may resonate in Singapore in other ways. The People’s Action Party has also held continuous power in Singapore for many decades.
“The growing challenge for the PAP government is to show that one-party dominance continues to work well for Singapore and Singaporeans,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University and former Nominated Member of Parliament. ”They must be in accord with the values and the popular will of Singaporeans and always maintain their trust and confidence.”
With assistance from Livia Yap, Anuradha Raghu, Anisah Shukry and Yudith Ho.To contact the reporter on this story: Keith Zhai in Singapore at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com. Stephanie Phang
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