Bilahari (left); Pua (right)

“Sparring” history between SG Ambassador and Tony Pua, appointed right-hand man of M’sia Finance Minister

It was reported in The Star on Thursday (24 May) that Malaysia Democratic Action Party (DAP) Members of Parliament, Tony Pua and Dr Ong Kian Ming have been roped in by the new Malaysian Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng to help their country fix its financial problems left by the previous Najib Razak government.

Both men have been appointed as special officers to Finance Minister Lim for the next six months without pay. “We have been appointed with no pay and we are just basically helping out,” said Mr Pua when interviewed. “The minister needs hands to help him settle down in the next few months.”

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he added. Mr Pua is also DAP publicity secretary. Their appointments have been approved by PM Mahathir personally.

Although their contract was for a six-month period, they said they would serve Minister Lim as long as their help was required. Both have already started work and were spotted accompanying the minister to his first press conference on Tue (22 May).

SG Ambassador-at-Large fires first shot

The appointment of Mr Pua playing a part in the Malaysian government decision making process, especially in an important ministry like the Finance Ministry, must have come as a surprise to Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan.

Three years ago in 2015, there was an intense online “sparring” incident involving Bilahari and Mr Pua, who was then just a lowly Malaysian opposition figure.

It all started with a series of Bersih protests in Malaysia, organised by a coalition of NGOs which seeks to reform the electoral system in Malaysia. The protests were carried out with the objective to calling for clean and transparent governance in Malaysia as well as strengthening the parliamentary democracy system.

In Oct 2015, Bilahari decided to write an article published in the Straits Times criticising the Bersih movement and poking his nose into Malaysian politics. He said that “young Malaysian Chinese” were “delusional” in believing that the alleged Malaysian “principle of Malay dominance can be changed”.

“It is my impression that many young Malaysian Chinese have forgotten the lessons of May 13, 1969. They naively believe that the system built around the principle of Malay dominance can be changed,” Bilahari wrote. “That may be why they abandoned MCA for the DAP. They are delusional. Malay dominance will be defended by any means.”

Malaysian MPs Tony Pua and Dr Ong Kian Meng respond

His article drew a sharp response from Mr Pua, who was an opposition MP at the time.

Writing on his Facebook page, Mr Pua said, “He (Bilahari) did Singapore no favour by cementing the perception of his country as the mercenary prick of Southeast Asia… And they wonder why they have no friends.”

Mr Pua also added, “I don’t care much if this was the view of some academic or armchair critic. But as the Ambassador-at-large, Mr Bilahari is a spokesman for Singapore.” Mr Pua was reminding Bilahari of his position while writing the ST article criticising Malaysian politics.

Separately, Dr Ong Kian Ming, also an opposition MP at the time, issued a statement countering Bilahari that the growing civil society movement against Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition then was reflective of the global trend where long-entrenched regimes are eventually removed by the people.

“Ambassador Kausikan is right to say that Singapore has no choice but to work with whatever system or leader emerges in Malaysia,” Dr Ong said. “But, one cannot help but wonder if his fears about a possible transition in power in Malaysia, especially one that is peaceful and well-ordered, is driven more by his fears of such a possibility in Singapore in the distant but foreseeable future than for his concern of what might happen in Malaysia.”

Later, Mr Pua’s posting prompted a response from Bilahari, who complained about Mr Pua’s “rude comments” about him and Singapore.

“[I] thought that Mr Pua’s crudity speaks for itself more tellingly than anything I could have written,” Bilahari wrote.

Mr Pua rebutted the complaint, “I don’t know about you, but I thought the ‘mercenary prick of Southeast Asia’ was a very ‘coherent’ description of Mr Bilahari’s articulation of Singapore’s interest. It might be ‘crude’, sure, but some will actually say that I’m just too polite.”

Academic: Bilahari ignores bread-and-butter issues

The spat was widely reported and academic like Professor Danny Quah of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre at the London School of Economics (LSE) weighed in.

Prof Quah questioned the underlying assumption or basis of Bilahari’s claims, “What is notable about it is how a seasoned, wise, and supremely talented political observer such as its author fails to acknowledge the universal aspirations of Malaysia’s citizens, but instead sees only the obvious surface tensions in that country. In the relentless rush of Realist discourse, he ends up articulating a narrative no deeper than what power elites have, for decades now, wanted ordinary people to believe.”

“More critical, it seems to me, is not the problem of idealism vs realism,” Prof Quah said. “It’s whether the writer has accurately read that in Malaysia, as he says bluntly, ‘the pressure point is religion’. This line jars.”

Prof Quah said that “the situation in Malaysia is one where people deal, every day, with bread-and-butter issues like escalating corruption, criminal malfeasance, rising extreme poverty, widening income disparities, and a failure in national governance.”

“In the midst of this wide array of social problems, the writer points to… religion. Such a diversionary tactic, long practised by power elites everywhere, puts blame elsewhere than where the problem genuinely rests.”

As things turned out, the recent GE in Malaysia has shown that Bilahari’s assertion of Malaysians embracing race-based politics was thrown out. Malaysians have overwhelmingly abandoned it by voting the Barisan Nasional out and choosing the Pakatan Harapan instead, which has advocated a “Malaysian Malaysia”.

Both Bilahari and Tony Pua from RI

Coincidentally, both Bilahari and Mr Pua studied at RI.

Bilahari is presently the Ambassador-at-Large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). From 2001 to May 2013, he was the Second Permanent Secretary and subsequently the Permanent Secretary of MFA. He has held a variety of appointments in the MFA, such as Director for Southeast Asia, Director for East Asia and the Pacific and Deputy Secretary for Southeast Asia. He was also the Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1995 to 1998 and Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1994 to 1995.

He has been awarded the Public Administration Medal (Gold) and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) by the government. He was also awarded the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins with the rank of Gran Cruz by the President of the Republic of Chile and the Oman Civil Merit Order by the Sultan of Oman.

In contrast, the younger Mr Pua left Malaysia when he was 13 to do his secondary schooling in Singapore on an ASEAN scholarship from the Singapore government. He also attended RI then went on to Oxford University where he studied PPE at Keble College on a MTC scholarship in 1994.

He later worked for Andersen Consulting after graduation. In 1997, he started Cyber Village in KL when demand for e-business consultancy grew. In August 2001, his company became the first Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC)-status company to list on the Singapore SESDAQ. In early 2007, he disposed of all his interests in the company and tendered his resignation to join DAP in 2008.

In the 2008 general election, he won in Petaling Jaya Utara and became an opposition MP. He ran against the incumbent, Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry for Women, Family & Community Affairs and Deputy Chief of the MCA women’s wing in a straight 1-to-1 fight as there is no GRC system in Malaysia. In 2009, he was appointed the DAP member of the Pakatan Rakyat committee. He retained his parliamentary seat in the recent 2018 general election with a majority of 106,903, the largest majority in Malaysian history.

Bilahari, on the other hand, does not need to struggle or fight much after he returned to Singapore as a PSC scholar from the Columbia University.