Three things we learnt from: Dr M’s visit to Singapore

Zurairi Ar
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attend the Asean-China Summit in Singapore November 14, 2018. — Picture courtesy of Asean 2018 Secretariat

SINGAPORE, Nov 15 — Today is the last day of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s trip here for his first official visit and Asean Summit appearance since his return as Malaysia’s prime minister following an election result that shocked the region and the world.

The prime minister arrived with his wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali and his entourage of ministers, and returned with an orchid hybrid named after the couple, an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, an engineering patron award, and numerous news headlines... among others.

The media spotlight will follow him to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Papua New Guinea this weekend, but here are three things we learnt from his visit so far:

1. Unapologetic Dr M shows Singapore who’s boss

Although in an interview with Malay Mail prior to the visit, Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah downplayed any friction between the two countries, it is hard not to continue seeing Dr Mahathir as a masterful troll of Singapore.

While his counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, in the lunch he hosted in the Istana, strived to highlight the common thread uniting both countries, Dr Mahathir followed that up by saying that although the pair are not unlike twins, one is obviously “the elder brother”.

In that speech and the next at the National University of Singapore, Dr Mahathir was unapologetic in pointing out that there will always be competition and differences between them, make no mistake about it.

When asked by the Singaporean and international media on what was discussed between him and Lee, he freely divulged that Singapore has finally softened up and are willing to at least discuss the water deal — making the latter inadvertently look like the obstinate and grouchy little brother.

2. Is Dr M growing into laissez-faire?

Whatever happened to the Dr Mahathir that had championed state intervention in the early 1980s to spur industrialisation, and pushed for heavy protectionism to give advantage to his pet national car project?

“I know I have a reputation for saying ‘buy British last’, if you can remember that,” he told the Malaysian diaspora at the Shangri-La Hotel on Monday, as he urged for patriotism in consuming Malaysian-made goods to drive the manufacturing sector to “be like China”.

With him promising less red tape for returning professionals and urging against trade barriers within Asean nations amid the United States-China trade war, it may be tempting to think of him as a new champion of a more laissez-faire economy and administration.

However, it may just be that this is an extension of his fervent long-time anti-colonialism, slightly xenophobic attitude, as he has previously called for handicap for weaker and smaller economies, and now warning against neo-colonialism by both US and China — either through economic sanctions or proposed free trade deals.

3. Teaching Asean how to grow a backbone

While Singapore may be the chairman this year and Thailand the next, it is undeniable that the eyes of the region was fixed on Dr Mahathir.

Some in the foreign media were left fuming when they missed an impromptu door stop with Dr Mahathir after International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde paid him a courtesy call, that they requested another session with him after the 21st Asean-Japan Summit.

It is uncertain whether Asean will release a forceful statement rebuking Myanmar over its treatment of the Rohingya minority at the closing this evening, as Dr Mahathir succinctly told the media: “Asean leaders are very diplomatic, they don’t give strong statements against each other.”

Minister Saifuddin admitted that some in the region look to Dr Mahathir for some sort of a leadership role, and the veteran statesman has led by example: freely chastising Aung San Suu Kyi for “defending the indefensible”, holding China to its words on the South China Sea code of conduct, and telling off the US against bullying other members of Asean.

There is still time yet for Asean to grow into a burgeoning economic region and respected global player of Dr Mahathir’s dream.

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