Singaporeans and its leaders must let go of mindset that GDP can only grow at the expense of other nations

by James Lee

With news of Dr Mahathir’s resounding electoral victory across the Causeway, it became apparent just over the last few hours that there were two Singaporean camps with opposing viewpoints on how his election as the new Malaysian Prime Minister would affect us. I call these two camps the cheerers and the jeerers.

The cheerers possibly belong to a group of people who identify themselves as the oppressed Malaysians, having fallen through the cracks of some government policies, Singaporeans who see hope in the ‘voice of the people’ and hope that perhaps a change of similar sorts would materialise in Singapore. There are those amongst these who also see the election results as a testament of how a true democracy would and should function, with a proper and credible opposition who can ask tough questions in parliament, and not forced to apologise when raising suspicions.

The jeerers belong to the camp who argue that historically, Dr Mahathir has not been the friendliest guy in the neighbourhood when dealing with us. He reportedly threatened to cut off our water supply repeatedly and said to be guilty of bashing Singapore whenever it suited his needs. Most notably, former Nominated Member of Parlimament, Calvin Cheng has come out to warn Singaporeans to keep Dr Mahathir’s antics in mind while rejoicing.

I state now categorically, that I belong to the former and my reasons for rejoicing with our Malaysian friends is because it is a new hope for them. I think local poet, Gwee Li Sui eloquently explained why so many people were able to identify with this familiar narrative.

This is how he put it and I quote:

“A powerful man intoxicated by self-love errs and casts out his rightful, most promising heir. He gives his realm instead to less capable and even bad successors, and consequently the realm suffers. But the good heir fights back and establishes the means through which the author of his misery discovers his folly. The old man sets out to redeem himself. The 2 unite to revive the realm.

Of course, you know this story. It’s Shakespeare’s King Lear; it’s George Lucas’s Star Wars. The history has the framework of the classic political saga whose protagonists fall and then rise, fail and are then restored. If LKY’s death has ended our Singapore Story, when Dr Mahathir at last hands over power to Anwar, a Malaysia Story will have come to a close.”

So, this is a story of the triumph of good over evil – what’s that not to like about it? Is this not the cornerstone of every story and every struggle in humanity’s history?

As for the opposing viewpoint, I am of the opinion that the arguments put forth are myopic, self-centered and dangerous.

Yes, it is true that historically, Dr Mahathir has been bashing Singapore, treating us as their bogeyman and all. However, all those happened in the 80s and 90s, where tough times required tough men. All the more so because he had a formidable adversary in the late Lee Kuan Yew just south of his borders. In fact, I would also agree that some of LKY’s earlier strongman policies were necessary in the founding days of our country. How can we live with the hypocrisy if we diss Dr Mahathir for being the Malaysian strongman whilst we idolise LKY?

The arguments that Dr Mahathir is unfriendly towards Singapore is self-centered because of something that most Singaporeans have developed – self-entitlement. So, the argument seems to be that some Singaporeans prefer Najib to be the PM (at the expense of the Malaysians suffering) so that we can have better economic relations, the High-Speed Rail, better ties, and therefore lesser trouble? Or perhaps the other way of phrasing is more appropriate – that we prefer to have Najib as PM so that Malaysia will continue to suffer whilst Singapore prosper. Self-entitlement much?

Ever since Dr Mahathir stepped down and handed over the reins, and many Singaporeans can attest to this, is that our currency has strengthened against the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) by leaps and bounds. Back in the 90s, it was 1 SGD to 1.5 MYR. Then it hit 1:2, 1:2.5 and now 1:3, almost double of what it was back in the day. It is obvious that Singapore has grown and prospered all these years whilst Malaysia was grappling with slow economic growth, poor governance, and corruption.

And all this time, Singaporeans have taken advantage of the low exchange rate for holidays, purchasing diapers and milk powder and pumping subsidised petrol in Johor Bahru. I hope it is not because all these are probably going to end, that we bemoan that Malaysians have chosen a leader that is ‘not friendly’ to Singapore?

In the years gone by since Dr Mahathir stepped down, Singapore has prospered and we now have the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita in ASEAN. In this current economic climate, with uncertain US policies, the European Union in disarray and China being the biggest bully in our backyard, ASEAN is all the more relevant. Hence, Singapore should play the role of big brother to all countries in the region (especially Malaysia because our history is more intertwined than our relationship with other ASEAN nations).

We should be helping our neighbours to grow in strength. We have previously achieved this high growth because we capitalised on the poor governance in Malaysia and other nations. But it is time for that to stop because we can no longer operate alone, not with China wielding a big stick in our backyard. ASEAN needs to work together, and for that to happen, Singaporeans and our leaders must let go of that mindset that we can only grow our GDP at the expense of other nations.

Since Singapore is the most well placed in ASEAN, we should exercise our responsibility as a big brother, and not step on fellow nations in order to get ahead. Asia is the new region of growth and ASEAN is well placed to ride this wave. But this is only possible if we ditch the mindset of growth at the expense of others.

I also do not believe that Dr Mahathir would resort to his past antics of sabre-rattling. Just take a look at his political journey in the past year – he joined the opposition, he mended ties with the one person he has persecuted his entire life, and he ran for election and won. All this points to a man who did a paradigm shift in his entire model. What he had done was not an easy feat – risking his reputation to join the opposition, making amends with one of your greatest enemies whom you have jailed and seeking his forgiveness after all this persecution. This must be a man who had found a purpose higher than himself that required his utmost courage to undertake all the above. That sole purpose is to put Malaysia on the right track again. To do so, he cannot and would not pick fights with a nation (like Singapore) that is in much better standing than Malaysia.

To make an analogy, Malaysia and Singapore in the 80s and 90s were like two male tigers trying to fight for dominance over the pride. In today’s context, Singapore is like a sabretooth tiger while Malaysia is no more than an injured tiger. Dr Mahathir would surely recognise this disparity in power and attempt to heal his country before picking fights with others. Hence, unless I am mistaken by his intent, his old methods would have been put to rest and there is no need to worry about that.

In conclusion, there is much to rejoice for our friends across the Causeway, because if Malaysia gets their act together, the region would benefit. And in the long run, Singapore would be in the best position to reap all these benefits. I hope those who still have doubts about Dr Mahathir’s stewardship will reconsider their short term views for the long term benefits.