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Is Malaysia and Singapore making their way back to a more rocky relationship after the former’s political tsunami?

Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad gave a speech at the Oxford Union recently and answered several questions ranging from Malaysia’s stance on Israel, their relationship with China, and their recent tensions with southern neighbours, Singapore.

Dr Mahathir is currently leading the new Malaysian government, which came into power after a historical election that ousted the previous administration which had been in power for 61 years and was led by the allegedly corrupt former premier Najib Razak.

A Singaporean audience member asked the 94-year old premier if his actions over the HSR, airspace, maritime, crooked bridge, and water price disputes are an indication of his intention of returning to ‘the fraught diplomatic ties with Singapore’ that was apparent during his first tenure as Prime Minister (1981-2003) or whether he’s looking to move beyond that.

The audience member, Mr Darrion Mohan is a second-year history and politics undergraduate.

The Prime Minister, though not directly answering the question, did indicate the disputes were not ‘intentionally’ stirred up as Mr Mohan suggested. Latching on to the example of the Water Agreement between Malaysia and Singapore, Dr Mahathir said “do you think that buying water at 3 sens per 1,000 gallons and then selling it at S$60 per 1,000 gallons of clean water, do you think that is fair to Malaysia that we receive 3 sens?”

Dr M added that the price makes little sense now and called the arrangement ‘grossly unfair’, asserting that Singapore has benefitted for years from this unfair agreement.

On the issue of Malaysia missing the deadline to revise the price back in the 80s, Mahathir said that Malaysia did try but Singapore refused to negotiate. It’s worth noting here that Malaysian lawyers have a different reading of the agreement than Singapore does. Malaysia says that the date stipulated in the agreement for price review is not a timeline but a start date – basically, from that point on Malaysia can ask for a price review. Unlike Singapore who believes that Malaysia isn’t allowed to review the prices beyond that date.

The question was then pivoted back to the maritime issue. Specifically, Dr M was asked if any action would be taken to prevent a repeat of the incident where Johor Chief Minister visited a Malaysian vessel in the disputed waters without permission from the federal government.

To this Dr M responded by saying that the minister visited the vessel because he thought it was in Johor waters. The PM added that the reaction from Singapore over that one minor incident was ‘severe’ as if the two countries were about to go to war. He elaborated, “It is international water and the MB can go into international water without SG sending war ships to chase him away.”

Before passing his mic to another member of the audience, Mohan said that he fundamentally disagreed with PM Mahathir's assessment of the situation. In one of his earlier responses, Mohan quoted Najib who said that the current administration wants to return to the days of confrontational diplomacy. To that, PM Mahathir simply told Mohan that as he is not a Malaysian, he has no right to choose Najib as the leader even if he agreed with the former prime ministers stance on the issue.

MV Pedoman's location within the disputed area as of 1:53 p.m. on Thursday (10 Jan). Source: AIS Marine Traffic

Such sentiments are largely shared by Singaporeans. Mr Brown, Singapore's blog grandfather, chimed into the issue, voicing his displeasure over the "intrusion of Singapore waters" by Malaysia. Using an analogy to explain the situation, Mr Brown said it was like Malaysia had stuck their straw into Singapore's kopi-C and then offered to pull back their straw and negotiate whose drink it was.

Many Singaporeans have used that same argument when talking about this particular bilateral dispute. But most of these claims actually stem from Khaw Boon Wan's press announcement last year where he claimed that Malaysia had intruded into Singapore waters while failing to note that the said "intrusion" was due to the change of port limits by the two countries in October and November 2018.

On the other hand, the Malaysian mainstream media’s coverage of the issue and the response from their politicians have been largely measured and professional. They make it clear that Malaysia is relying on their reading of related agreements and using their own policies as reference points for protecting their sovereignty. Malaysian politicians are also not making alarmist statements or implying possible military action over the airspace and maritime issue, unlike Singapore. As such, it seems that the Malaysian public, though not totally warm towards Singaporeans, are less hostile when debating the issue.

But when you look at the Singaporean public, hostility is a mainstay. Could it be that the aggressive and alarmist way in which Singaporean politicians have responded to the disputes as well as the coverage of the Singaporean media of said reactions, is fueling the hostility of Singaporeans towards Malaysia? Perhaps it has something to do with the upcoming general election that is said to be held end of this year?