Malaysia and Singapore have always had a somewhat tense and strained relationship for two countries who are supposed to be close.
Geographically close, historically linked but distinctly different in governing approaches, these two countries share a rather unique and to a certain extent, special bond of two sovereign countries which were once part of one single nation post-British colonial rule.
Yet since Singapore left the federation in 1965 to stand as its own independent and separate country, many issues have turned into disputes and become the bane of contention between these two Asean member countries.
Maritime and airspace territorial disputes, land reclamation and raw water supply issues tended to boil over and cropped up time and again throughout the decades to test the two countries relationship. Even claims of food heritage such as nasi lemak and cendol would have citizens from both sides of the causeway going to war with each other through social media. To say that the relationship is testy would be an understatement.
The latest spat over Malaysian ships entering Singapore waters and that of Singapore’s new Seletar airport’s ILS encroaching Pasir Gudang airspace on the Malaysian side has triggered a fresh round of “squabbles”. On both sides, leaders and citizens are at each other’s throats yet again with “war of words” played out in both the main and online media.
Patriotic sentiments have been drummed up again as per the script of conflicts past. And perhaps this time around, a louder objection with a minister promising stern action against its wandering neighbor. This could be the accumulation of several issues within this half a year alone since Mahathir Mohamad took over from his predecessor. This time around, Singapore has chosen to “up the ante” by calling on its citizens to boycott Malaysian food import.
A need to flex muscles? To show strength as testament to Singapore’s sovereignty?
And on Malaysia’s part, the need to test its neighbour’s resolve at times?
Although the business community in both countries are calling for a peaceful solution to the strained bilateral relations that is steadily growing more tense and may threaten to complicate their business ventures, there is not much else to suggest that it would escalate into a diplomatic catastrophe.
These eruptions of tensions are nothing that people in both countries have not witnessed before.
How could two countries like Malaysia and Singapore who are, in essence siblings, even contemplate severing ties with each other, let alone declaring war?
The uncomfortable fact to stomach is that both countries need each other. History has proven that very clearly.
One its earliest, most pressing problem has always been the availability of a safe and stable supply of water for its citizens. Before its secession in 1965, Singapore was promised water supply by Malaysia through the state of Johore who has always regarded Singapore as a close relative. Indeed, Singapore was dependent on Malaysia for its water supply then and continues to rely on the 4 water agreements signed with its neighbor to provide its citizens with a constant water supply.
Half of Singapore’s current water supply flows from across the causeway from Johore. And until 2061 when the water agreement between the 2 countries expires Singapore becomes more self-sustaining with regard to its water supply, Malaysia remains de-facto water supplier to the island republic.
And due to its small size and thus lack of land for agricultural purposes, Malaysia is one of Singapore’s most crucial supplier of food and in particular fresh produce like fruits and vegetables as well as eggs and meats. Importing food from Malaysia is the fastest way compared to other countries such as France and Indonesia as that would mean transporting the food supply to the island country via air or sea. Live pigs are also imported from Malaysia.
Malaysia and Thailand have also had a very long and trying history yet both countries share an exceptionally close bond. Whether it is due to the centuries of shared cultural heritage or just great neighbourly relations, it is worth noting that not even Indonesia who supposedly have more in common with Malaysia get on so well with its neighbour.
Two countries that are sovereign and independent such as Malaysia and Singapore could and should demonstrate to the rest of the world how to live together in peace and harmony. In Mahathir’s own words, ”Malaysia and Singapore are like twins”.
What hurts one country also hurt the other one. More than half a century later, it is time to think and act together for a common good.