As millions of Malaysia’s citizens go to the polls on Sunday, one might see parallels between Malaysia’s politically-awakened electorate and the increasingly-disgruntled population of its immediate neighbour, Singapore.
Yet, analysts are divided on how inspired the people of the “little red dot” might be in the wake of what could be the formation of an opposition-led government in Malaysia.
“I think there is an impact (on Singaporeans), although we should be careful not to overplay the links,” said Joseph Liow, professor of comparative and international policies at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “It’s more complicated than that — the issues are different to some extent, but of course there are similarities as well, the circumstances on the ground differ, as do opportunities for mobilisation.”
To him, it’s not just about how quickly Singaporeans will keep up with Malaysians in terms of acts of civil nationalism (as seen in Malaysia’s Bersih rallies, for instance), but the fact that the former do have their own beef with the government.
“I think we should appreciate the fact that while what is happening in Malaysia resonates with some Singaporeans, the latter do also have legitimate local concerns which the PAP (People’s Action Party) government has to work to address.”
For Singapore Management University political science associate professor Bridget Welsh, the elections in Malaysia may be too close to call and she said while the link between the two countries does exist, their people “follow different paths”.
“This is the most competitive election in history,” she said. “It will be pivotal for the country's history and whether the country will engage in substantive political and economic reform. Unlike earlier contests, it is about national power”.
“But for the PAP they have to rebuild its political touch and trust to stem (the) loss of support, and they are in more of a position of strength on governance,” she said. “For Malaysia, much of this trust has been lost and the BN is using instruments of power to hold onto power, especially money. There is much more organized empowerment for change in Malaysia.”
In the view of Malaysian political scientist Wong Chin Huat, though, people in Singapore cannot possibly miss the “winds of change” a-blowing throughout Malaysia.
“Both Malaysia and Singapore have been stressing a lot about the vulnerability of society because of its diverse fabrics,” he said, noting that the ethnic riots in 1964 and 1969 here and in Malaysia respectively have been “conveniently used as the bogeymen to tell the citizens not to rock the boat”.
In the Bersih rallies in Malaysia, though, citizens across races displayed great solidarity and any violence was caused by the police — something Wong feels gave rise to the mushrooming of protests after July 2011, when Bersih 2.0 took place.
“Singaporeans live too close to Malaysia and encounter too many Malaysians in Singapore to not feel the change,” he said.
Malaysia’s foreign policy toward Singapore
Should either the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) retain their hold on the government, or cede to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR), how then will foreign policy toward Singapore change?
If BN retains power, says Wong, current prime minister Najib Razak may end up ceding his role to his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, who is known to be backed by former PM Mahathir Mohamad. Given this scenario, what he calls the “2M” government will take a tougher stand on Singapore.
“Already losing the middle ground, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) under the 2M can only survive by shoring up its Malay support and Singapore will be a convenient bogeyman,” he said.
Liow, however, takes the view that foreign policy will likely take a back-seat for the incoming government. On this, he believes that the existing relationship between Malaysia and Singapore will remain, and not revert to the “acrimony that defined the Mahathir years”.
“Having said that, we should also expect that on things such as Iskandar, in the event of an opposition victory, whether or not there will be fundamental changes depends very much on whether the new government will go on a ‘witch hunt’,” he said, noting that some of the key Malaysian corporate companies who are heavily vested in Iskandar have ties to Najib’s administration. “My hope is that populist politics doesn’t find its way into the equation!”
Welsh shared a similar view, noting that existing ties between the two countries remain strong. “But Singapore will no longer be the centre to hold ill-gotten funds, as economic links will strengthen through stronger SME ties, more interaction and more transparency,” she said.
A Pakatan-run government, she added, would work to strengthen regional ties, enhance regional security and promote mutual prosperity.
“Differences in foreign policy will be gradual, with more attention to rights, a careful approach to signing any new trade agreements and outreach,” she said.
Agreeing, Wong said, “If Anwar (who unofficially leads the PR alliance) comes into power, his first priority is to rebuild the economy and social harmony. Picking a fight with a significant neighbour like Singapore does not work unless the PAP shows hostility towards PR during or after the elections. And the PAP is simply too smart to do that.”