On 18 January, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was candidly questioned by a Singaporean student over the fractious diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Darrion Mohan, a second-year history and politics undergraduate, uploaded a part of the debate with the elder statesman on his Facebook page.
He started by mentioning that Singapore and Malaysia were “again embroiled in an unnecessary and potentially internecine maritime dispute”, referring to Johor chief minister’s recent action of unwelcomely entering the waters off Tuas.
The young man then asked Dr. Mahathir, who had previously given his address at Britain’s prestigious debating society, the Oxford Union, if any action would be taken against the chief minister.
“Would you not agree actions like this contribute to the perception that your government is pugnacious, that your government acts in bad faith and they your government..wants to return to the days of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric?” he asked.
Before addressing his question, Dr. Mahathir asked if he was a Malaysian.
Mr. Mohan then skewed back the discussion to the issues he raised, listing the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail project, the airspace dispute over Seletar Airport, the proposed “crooked” bridge between Johor Bahru and Singapore, calls to revise water supply prices and the maritime dispute as signs that Dr. Mahathir wanted a return to the “fraught relations with Singapore” seen during his first stint as Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003.
Responding to this, Dr. Mahathir said that the 1962 Water Agreement between the two countries was unfair to Malaysia.
He went on further to say that Singapore pays 3 sen (1 Singapore cent) per 1,000 gallons for its supply of raw water from Johor, and sells treated water back to Johor at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons.
Stating that it costs Singapore RM2.40 to treat every thousand gallons of water and by selling at 50 sen, the Republic is giving a subsidy of RM1.90 per thousand gallons of water.
As for the maritime dispute, Dr. Mahathir admits that “the Menteri Besar went without our permission”, adding that “he thought it was Johor waters, that’s why he went there”.
But, the Malaysian Prime Minister said that Singapore’s reaction to the intrusion was quite extreme, “as if you are going to war”, and mentioned that the waters off Tuas as international waters.
“It is not Singapore water either, it is international water and the Menteri Besar can go into international water without Singapore sending warships to chase him away,” Dr Mahathir noted.
Although his questions were not completely answered, Mr. Mohan passed the microphone to another person to ask questions, but not before insisting that the waters were not international and Malaysia had not claimed the part of waters as theirs according to a 1979 map that it had tabled.
The Prime Minister was later asked if he believed it was right for Malaysia to expel Singapore in 1965.
“But the fact is that Singapore was a part of Malaysia before. It is our country,” he said. “Normally, when a country decides to decolonise, the land goes back to the owner of that land, to the country that owns that land, that happened to Hong Kong and Macau and other places, ” he explained.
Dr Mahathir added, “But in our case, we find that people in Singapore are not compatible with the people in Malaysia. They have a different viewpoint, different ideas about how a country should be ruled, so it is for that reason that they were asked to leave Malaysia, and I think it was a wise decision at that time.”
Singapore combined with the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah in 1963 to form the Federation of Malaysia. However, Singapore left the federation in 1965.
Although the student is deemed as “national hero” by Singaporeans, but most Malaysians are not too bothered about this incident. In fact, there seems to be very less attention given to this episode in Malaysia media.
However, there are a small group who pointed out their dissatisfaction towards the student as he failed to respect the Prime Minister’s age, on Singapore’s news sites’ Facebook pages.
Adeam Adam said that the student “wants to show his smartness within those parameters of his question”. He added that Singapore has always wanted to find fault and ready for war or conflict, in regards to Singapore’s reaction towards Johor’s Menteri Besar. He went on further to say that the decision to postpone the high speed railway was meant for the well-being of Malaysian people as they can’t afford it.
Other netizens said that Singaporeans should clean up their own mess and wondered if Mr. Mohan will dare to question Singapore’s Prime Minister on issues surrounding the Republic.
Apart from that, Hafizulazrin Hassan said that Malaysia should be more stringent towards Singapore and put its people first.