Singapore and Malaysia’s relationship goes beyond the personalities of the Lees and Mahathir

Relations between Singapore and Malaysia have been tetchy of late. With the drama of the “are we or are we not going ahead with the High Speed Rail (HSR) project” to the “we will not sell you water tit for tat”, there’s been plenty to keep journalists and civil servants busy. Netizens on both sides of the causeway have also had many a field day, taking to the Internet by storm every time there is a new verbal development.

Even though Mahathir has announced through the media that the HSR project is off, he seems to have backtracked later by saying that it has simply been postponed. The Singapore government has responded that it has not heard anything through official channels and is still incurring costs which it will seek compensation from Malaysia for.

Then we have the age old water war. Mahathir has once again raised questions in relation to the price of water while conspiracy theorists have posited that the water fight has been restarted to detract from the HSR issue.

It is easy to get lost in the fast moving nature of these retorts but let’s take a step back and go back to basics. Singapore and Malaysia are neighbours. Whether we like it or not, our relationship is here to stay and it is mutually beneficial to have good relationships with each other. This is a relationship that goes beyond the big personalities of their respective leaders and leaders change. Just look at Malaysia’s recent election results.

PM Lee and Najib were political BFFs and now in one fell swoop that relationship is over. This is a clear reminder of how citizens of both countries need to take a long term view. Singapore and Malaysia’s friendship goes beyond the Lees and Mahathir. We will still be neighbours long after these people are gone.

It is reasonable to assume that all the players in the saga are influenced by their own agendas. But let us not miss the forest for the trees and get riled up over political muscle flexing. Mahathir won this election on the premise of change. To deliver what the voters want, he has to be seen to be pushing Malaysia’s interests aggressively. The fact that his government has not officially notified Singapore on the cancellation of the HSR project is telling. Perhaps it is all a ruse to show the public how much he means business?

As for the water saga, is this really a new issue? Not really, no. To be fair, Singapore must be aware that these agreements will need to be renegotiated at some point. Is that point now or later remains to be seen but let’s not rush headlong into forcing an agreement. For now, it works. Let’s wait for the dust to settle in Mahathir’s new government before worrying.

As Elgin Toh rightfully points out, Mahathir now leads a coalition government. Every decision will now require greater consensus. It is no longer him at the helm of a majority UMNO government which he can count on for unquestioned support.