The Paper General and two Asian Strongmen

During the 80s and 90s, the relationship between Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad and Mr Anwar Ibrahim was described as having a “father-and-son-like closeness”. Some were surprised that a supposed dictator like Mahathir would allow Anwar to manage three different portfolios in a short span of four years, and was even content for Anwar to replace his loyal Lieutenant Abdul Ghafar as Deputy Prime Minister.

Now that political change has landed in Malaysia, the 4G leaders will have to deal with the duo’s leadership. Although the transition is still clouded in some uncertainty, Mahathir has represented to Japanese newspaper Mainichi that he could last “for at most two years before” handing power over to Anwar. Such a transition could take place earlier now that Anwar has received a Royal Pardon.

While relations between Singapore and its Northern neighbour have been generally peaceful, they have not been the smoothest sailing either particularly with Mahathir at the helm. From threats to cut off Singapore’s water supply to an appeal against the 2008 Pedra Branca decision, it would require both tremendous political will and skill to deal with the friction that exists between the 2 countries.

The South China Morning Post said that “[Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir] rarely saw eye to eye”. This was affirmed by Mahathir himself when he made an obituary to Lee in 2015, saying that “on most other issues we could not agree”. Some of these issues were described by distinguished Professor Amitav Acharya in his book Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia:

“.. over relocation of their customs and immigration facilities, and the right of Malaysian workers in Singapore to withdraw their CPF before turning 55 years…  spilled over to their defence relationship, with Malaysia pulling out of a joint exercise scheduled… and rescinded a long-standing agreement that allowed Singaporean military and rescue planes to fly though its air space without prior authorisation”

Now that Mahathir is back, working out some of these issues could prove tricky for Lee’s government. Earlier in January, Najib Razak said that the outcome of the Malaysian general election would not change the nature of relations between the two countries.  Lee then joked in response that it was because Najib had “confidence in the results”, which then saw the two leaders laughing.

Lee Kuan Yew has been described by one of Singapore’s top lawyers as a “genius who.. could see trends and dangers” while the Jakarta Post had described both men as being “equally Machiavellian in their methods”. Nonetheless, the current Prime Minister has shown that his experience and success in dealing with international affairs is less than that of his father.

While Lee Hsien Loong had betted on a Clinton win in last year’s US elections, Trump won instead and this was met with a congratulation note considered distasteful by many. Trump eventually rescinded the TPP trade accord that the Lee administration was relying heavily on to boost trade.

In addition, Lee had incurred the wrath of China by asking them to respect international laws in a territorial dispute with the Philippines at a White House dinner. This prompted Beijing to ask that Singapore respect its position on the South China Sea, while Duterte has instead warmed up to China in view of the foreign investments that the latter is able to provide.

What is of concern is whether Singapore’s next Prime Minister can at least be on par with PM Lee on international affairs.

South China Morning Post article said that an area where the contenders require more experience is in the area of foreign policy. This was echoed by former TODAY editor P N Balaji who said that all the contenders have “yet to show whether they possess the statecraft to helm the city state – which prides itself for being friends with all major powers.”

Given the changes in the political dynamics between Singapore and Malaysia, how well do you think the 4G leadership will manage to maintain Singapore’s lead over its northern neighbour?