by Donald Low
After my Malayan road trip, I’ve been wondering why so many pro-Establishment folks in Singapore, including the mainstream media, PAP IBs, even some former senior civil servants, seem so keen to see the Mahathir government fail.
The most common reason given is that Mahathir wasn’t very friendly to Singapore when he was PM, and that he’s asked to review projects like the HSR from KL to Singapore. The implication here is that he’s driven, partly as least, by a desire to do Singapore in. So the argument, as far as I can make out, is that we should want him and his government to fail so that they are less able to hurt us.
But that argument is deeply flawed. Surely what’s in our long-term interest is a stable and well-governed Malaysia. Also, it is quite clear that if BN had won, that would almost certainly be bad for our long-term interests. While it is premature to predict that the new government would, or even could, lead Malaysia to a post-racial future (basic differences over whether any race should be given a special privileged position being the main reason Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965), there’s almost no doubt that the only serious alternative—a government formed of an alliance between BN and PAS—would have been a mono-ethnic government. That could have been much worse for us.
Indeed, for many years, we were concerned about the changing demographics in Malaysia leading to ever more racially divisive politics and policies in the country, with spilllover effects to Singapore. This prospect, for now at least, has become less likely. Even if the new PH government does not bring about “systemic change” (which I take to mean Malaysia becoming more meritocratic and “race-blind”), the fact that it’s a multi-ethnic government with at least a post-racial rhetoric (if, not yet, reality) is surely a plus for Singapore.
What about the argument that Najib was friendly to us and Mahathir wasn’t? That’s mostly rubbish and reflects a naive, even childish, ignorance about international relations. As the dictum goes, “in international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.” Our permanent interest is (or should be) to maintain stable, mutually beneficial relations with our closest neighbour.
This is far more likely if Malaysia under the new government, is stable and successful. Why in the world should we want the new government to fail? How does it help us if we are nostalgic about Najib as PM or the warm relations we had with him? There’s very little room for sentimentality or nostalgia in IR. Incidentally, on my recent road trip to Malaysia, I found the Najib (and Rosmah) name to be incredibly toxic, and that this sentiment cut across ethnic lines.
Meanwhile circumspection (and prudence) seems to be completely lacking in the comments made by some of our pro-establishment sites about the new Malaysian government. We should really be quite careful not to antagonise the beast in Mahathir. The best way to understand him is that, in many ways, he’s Malaysia’s LKY—at least insofar as his nationalism and country-above-all-else mindset go. And if that beast is provoked, the intransigent and prickly Mahathir that we fear will indeed be the one we would be dealing with.
Ultimately though, I think the reason many pro-Establishment people want to see the Mahathir government fail is that they seem to be doing everything that our Establishment says cannot or should not be done, eg GST abolition (which I also think is a bad idea; I think it should be reformed not removed), review of repressive laws (like the anti-fake news law that was recently passed, the Printing Presses Act, Sedition Act, etc.), a clearer separation of powers between different branches, etc.
In other words, the reason many here would like to see the new Malaysian government fail is that its success would cause them cognitive dissonance and discomfort. So to preserve the coherence and consistency of their worldview, they are willing to put Singapore-Malaysia relations at risk. So who’s being reckless and dangerous now?
This article was first published on Donald Low's Facebook post and reproduced with permission