2018 in review: 5 times Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad caused a stir

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech about “Malaysia – Thailand bilateral relations in the ASEAN” at Chulalongkorn university in Bangkok, Thailand, on 25 October, 2018. (AP file photo)

In this series, Yahoo Singapore takes a look back at the movers and shakers, trends and defining quotes of 2018.

The relationship between Singapore and Malaysia saw a shift mid-way through 2018, following the defeat of Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in its 14th General Election and the return of 93-year old Mahathir Mohamed as Prime Minister.

During Dr Mahathir’s first spell as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, ties between the neighbours had been tense, prompting observers to fear a return to a similar tone. Seven months into his tenure, here are the top 5 times Dr Mahathir caused a stir.

1. “A lot of people announce their borders off and on, and that causes a lot of disputes, so we will settle the disputes based on legal provisions and our rights.” (December 2018)

The latest dispute involves Malaysia unilaterally extending the Johor Baru port limits in October. Singapore says the new limits encroach into its territorial waters. Repeated incursions by Malaysian government vessels have led to warnings by members of the Republic’s leadership, and encounters between the vessels of the Republic of Singapore Navy and Police Coast Guard and Jabatan Laut (Marine Department) Malaysia. Malaysia has since said it will “de-escalate the situation”.

2. “I think it is manifestly ridiculous that we should sell water at 3 sen per thousand gallons. That was okay way back in the 1990s or 1930s. But now what can you buy with 3 sen? Nothing.” (June 2018)

In the Mahathir years, the Malaysia-Singapore water agreement was a frequent source of friction. Barely a month after becoming Prime Minister, the issue returned to the fore when Dr Mahathir said he wanted to review the price of water sold to Singapore. That led to much heated discussion in the media and on social media, and a lengthy statement to Parliament by Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who reminded all who were listening that the terms of the 1962 Water Agreement could not be changed unilaterally, and that Malaysia lost the right to review the terms of the agreement when it decided not to do so in 1987.

3. “It is a final decision, but it will take time because we have an agreement with Singapore. It’s not beneficial. It’s going to cost us a huge sum of money. We’ll make no money at all from this arrangement.” (May 2018)

The High Speed Rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur was hailed as a game-changer for businesses and personal ties on both sides when a deal was signed in December 2016. One of Dr Mahathir’s first acts as Prime Minister was to announce its cancellation, amending this later to a postponement of the project. In September, the two countries formally inked a deal to defer the project until May 2020, with Malaysia reimbursing the Republic S$15 million for abortive costs incurred.

4. “Malaysia and Singapore are like twins in a way, except that perhaps the elder twin is a little bit bigger than the younger twin and a little bit older.” (November 2018)

Dr Mahathir’s characterisation of the bilateral relationship during a state visit to Singapore in November is a return to the “abang-adik” (big brother-small brother) analogy used frequently in the past by Dr Mahathir and other Malaysian politicians. It implies that the younger sibling should take heed of the older brother’s admonishments and “be obliging and accommodating”, [A2] as Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew put it in his memoirs.

5. “There is some plan in the offing…there is already some plan.” (August 2018)

In calling for a third land link between Singapore and Malaysia in August, Dr Mahathir was widely seen as dusting off plans for one of his pet mega-projects – a “crooked bridge” connecting both sides. The plan for the bridge calls for demolishing the current Causeway and building a structure that allows vessels to pass beneath it – a move that would benefit Johor’s two ports. Singapore has said it sees no significant benefit to such a bridge, but would consider it as part of a bilateral package that would include the use of Malaysian airspace by Republic of Singapore Air Force jets.

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