S’pore and Malaysia should aim for maximum engagement


By Gerald Giam

Tuesday, 5 December, 2006

Former Transparency International Malaysia chief Tunku Abdul Aziz’s commentary, “Singapore is simply a neighbour too far” in Malaysia’s New Straits Times (18 October 2006) makes me feel both sad and a tad bit annoyed.

Sad, because of his call for Malaysia to adopt a “policy of minimum engagement” with Singapore, which he accuses of operating on the basis of “exacting the maximum advantage she can wangle out of any deal, no matter what”. Annoyed, because he somehow fails to see the plank in Malaysia’s own eye when painting Singapore as being legalistic and uncultivable.

It sometimes takes an outside observer to point out one’s flaws. Singapore would do well to conduct some introspection before summarily dismissing Tunku Abdul Aziz’s criticisms. It is true that Singaporeans and our government seem to always want to win at all costs. Kiasuism (being afraid to lose) is a national culture that permeates not just the everyday behaviour of ordinary Singaporeans, but goes all the way to the top levels of government.

Our government, by its own admission, does tend to be cold and clinical in the way it operates. Although observing international law and abiding by agreements are obviously very important, we do ourselves a disservice when we buy into the dogma that being cold and clinical in our approach to foreign relations is the only way to secure our national interests. Showing a bit more of empathy may not always reap us commensurate benefits, but it certainly won’t make us more enemies.

I’m glad the Tunku understands what it feels like to be a tiny country and have a neighbour 2771 times our size calling us a “little red dot”. We have every reason to feel insecure at times. When an Indonesian president suggests that Indonesia and Malaysia should team up to cut off Singapore’s water supply, or a former Malaysian prime minister frivolously jokes about bombing Singapore with his MiG warplanes, how can that not make us wary of our close neighbours?

Malaysia is Singapore’s largest trading partner, and Singapore is Malaysia’s second largest trading partner and its biggest source of tourist dollars. Many Singaporeans and Malaysians still have relatives across the Causeway. We celebrate pretty much the same festivals, eat the same food, speak with the same accent. When I am abroad and I hear someone speaking with a Singlish accent, I would always ask the person whether he is Singaporean or Malaysian, because it’s hard to tell our accents apart. We share the same desire to build cohesive, multiracial and multi-religious societies. If you compare our similarities and differences, the scale would definitely tip in favour of the former.

There’s a very competitive world out there waiting to devour small economies like Singapore and Malaysia. The most practical solution, moving forward, would be to put aside our petty quarrels and cooperate to tackle the challenge of globalisation together. As such, the calls from some quarters in Singapore for an economic union with Malaysia should be given some consideration. We should seek to engage each other more, rather than less. Engagement should not only be at government-to-government level, but also at the institution-to-institution and people-to-people levels as well.

Most of what the writer described was based on the issues of contention that flared up during Dr Mahathir’s period in office as prime minister. There is no better time to engage Malaysia than now, while it is under the leadership of Abdullah Badawi – who is probably the most down-to-earth and pragmatic prime minister Malaysia has had since independence. Both Singapore and Malaysia should grasp this opportunity to make hay while the sun shines. Singapore and Malaysia should aim for maximum engagement now, not minimum.


About the author:

The author is a former foreign ministry official who now runs his own e-business consultancy. His other writings can be found here. This piece is a personal comment.

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