Singapore-Malaysia relations: Let’s drop this 'twin' talk

Pipes carrying water from Malaysia to Singapore run alongside the Causeway towards Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore. (PHOTO: Reuters/Edgar Su)

We’ve been getting lessons in geography, cartography and navigation over the past few weeks. I’m glad because I think many people in this small country can’t point north, know just how big or small 2 hectares of land is and calculate distance base on time travelled, rather than in kilometres.

Now our lessons have moved into sea and air dimensions, with history thrown in. The one thing connecting them all: The concept of sovereignty. That is, the power (internationally recognised) to control a certain area, and it’s not just the land mass.

So Malaysia is describing the current spat with Singapore as an issue of sovereignty. The neighbour up north says that it is within its rights to extend its port limits because the waters belong to the country, according to a 1979 map. And so does the air space which planes landing in Singapore’s Seletar airport would have to fly through.

Singapore agrees that the maritime problem is a sovereignty problem. It has been owning the sea space, like, forever, until Malaysia decided to claim it in October. As for air space, Singapore argues that the issue isn’t about sovereignty, but who controls the planes flying in the space. For that, there are international players, like International Civil Aviation Organisation, which are involved as well.

We’re at an impasse, although there are signs of a Malaysian climbdown over the maritime issue. It has pulled back all but one vessel in Singapore waters and said it wants to discuss the dispute with Singapore next month. This is not before, however, pulling a stunt like asking for both sides to refrain from venturing into the disputed area. Singapore said no, as it should, because that would be conceding its sovereignty over the area.

I’m not sure I like the idea of having a Malaysian vessel in Singapore waters over Christmas and the New Year, even if it was ringed by Coast Guard boats and the Singapore Navy. It is not a guest, it is an invader.

I suppose both sides would be careful not to provoke an “accident”, which sort of reminds me of what it must be like for sailors of different nationalities who patrol the disputed areas in the South China Sea. If an “accident” does happen, Singapore made it clear that this would be Malaysia’s fault – its vessels shouldn’t be there in the first place.

(I was actually thinking that if Malaysia wants to station a boat there, we should have a plane hovering in that air space above Johor’s Pasir Gudang. But, hey, that would be a churlish gesture.)

Singapore produced videos of the Singapore navy’s work in the disputed area and Malaysia now has its own video, too. While the Singapore video is “real-time”, the Malaysian video narrated by Malaysian Transport Minister Antony Loke is a simulation of the effects he claims having a flight path over Johor would have on Pasir Gudang. Singapore now says he’s got his mathematics all wrong when he talked about planes crashing into hypothetical cranes and tall buildings.

And Mr Loke’s fears about how the Instrument Landing System would compromise safety is unfounded. It isn’t just computerised, Mr Loke, there’s a pilot there too at the controls of the planes. Planes from Seletar used that same route too, manually, but there wasn’t a chirp about sovereignty then.

Which begs the question of: Why now?

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan asked if Malaysia was raising technical issues because it wants to take over the airspace arrangements put in place since 1974. “Out of the blue in October, suddenly they started a row in air, in water. What’s next? Land transport, too? I wonder why.’’

If the authorities are befuddled, what more us lesser mortals?

Perhaps, the answer lies in something a lot deeper – a resentment of Singapore’s growth. As Malaysian political strategist Rais Hussin put it in a scathing article in the Malay Mail: “When Singapore was expelled by Tunku Abdul Rahman and declared its independence in 1965 – having first joined Malaysia in 1963 – it kept growing and growing to a size, at least in GDP, that is somewhat on par with Malaysia now, if not a fraction more.

“This is why we need to be blunt, just as Singapore is blunt to us often: Without Malaysia providing all forms of auxiliary support, be they passive or active, in terms of stability provisioned, and concepts like Asean Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, all of which Kishore Mahbubani himself, a Singaporean, ask his country not to take for granted, Singapore would not be where it is.

“Thus a small gesture of kindness to Malaysia, even an appreciative word, would be nice. Instead Singapore often takes a holier than thou approach.”

He complained about Singapore’s legalistic approach, forgetting that a legalistic approach would have led to Malaysia coughing up more than $15 million in abortive cost for deferring the High Speed Railway.

The fact that he can talk about inflicting “pain by a thousand cuts” if Singapore interdicts its ships shows how he little regard he has for our (to use a Malaysian word) sensitivities.

I wonder why, after more than 50 years, Malaysia is clinging to this umbilical cord of history. I resent the constant exhortations to remember that we are “brothers” and now, “twins” as popularised by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

We were separated almost at birth and have since pursued different paths. Malaysia might be geographically bigger and a little older, but we are two sovereign nations with our identities and aspirations.

If Malaysians want to keep invoking the “twin” analogy – and who’s the bigger and older one – it is free to do so. There is no need for Singapore to adopt the same approach.

I was aghast therefore when Mr Khaw described the analogy as a good one, although he probably meant it as a jibe: “As twins, we ought to embrace each other and help each other grow, and help each other succeed and celebrate each other’s achievements. Then I think it is so much better.”

Earlier in the week, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu described the relationship in the same way: “We are connected in so many ways. We go to Malaysia for shopping, we go to their place for business, we visit their people all the time. This kind of brotherly or sisterly relationship is one that we really want to continue and to protect.”

Perhaps, 3G leaders can carry on using this abang-adik relationship in their public comment, but I hope the 4G leaders, who were not even born during the 1965 separation would start a new chapter without such historical baggage.

We are neighbours and we want to be neighbourly. That’s enough.

As Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said recently: “Do we want to move forward constructively to prosper thy neighbour, or do we want to colour yet another new generation with beggar thy neighbour policies?”

He said he has met various younger Malaysian leaders since May, and they have expressed the hope that they want to work closer together.

Our relationship has gone back to the times when Dr M held the premiership. That was a generation ago, maybe more.

We should let a new generation of leaders define the relationship.

 

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‘Like twins’: Singapore, Malaysia renew ties as historic rival surfaces