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Review: Malaysia Singapore Fifty Years of Contention 1965-2015

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International Relations can be seen as a dynamic interaction between foreign policies of different nation states. In understanding a country’s foreign policy, the insider–outsider problem often plagues the area studies approach. Outsider from Country Y will see Country X using Y’s lenses and vice versa. Occasionally, practitioners will write memoirs that present Country X’s perspective from X’s lenses. Kadir Mohamad’s book represents an important contribution to Malaysia–Singapore foreign relations from a Malaysian insider perspective. His practitioner credentials as Secretary-General of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1996–2001), Ambassador-at-Large (2001–3), Advisor for Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister of Malaysia (2003–9) amongst others, as well as his networks to the diplomatic circles strengthens the accuracy of this book in articulating the Malaysian worldview of both International Relations and relations with Singapore.

The crux of modern Malaysia–Singapore relations is their unhappy start, aptly surmised as ‘lingering pains of separation’. From Malaysia’s perspective, Singapore’s People Action Party (fronted by Lee Kuan Yew) was too ambitious or naive to attempt to threaten Malay supremacy (ketuanan Melayu) of politics (p. 22) with the ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ vision (p. 21) and hence causing social riots bordering bloodshed (p. 28). From Singapore’s perspective, Lee Kuan Yew noted, in his Singapore Story (1998), that he “had let down many people in Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. They responded to our call for a Malaysian Malaysia.… Because they rallied around and felt as passionately as we did, … we were expelled.… I had failed them. That sense of guilt made me break down.” (p. 15). In Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (2011), Lee added, “I left behind tens of thousands of people who joined our rallies, and I knew that they were going to be handicapped, again as a minority and leaderless” (p. 21). At the core, it was a clash of titans between United Malay National Organisation’s Malay Malaysia (noting the racial composition of Malaysia) and  Lee’s vision of Malaysian Malaysia (noting the ideal of racial equality). Reality favoured United Malay National Organisation.

In the ensuing chapters, Mohamad elaborated subsequent flashpoints in Malaysia–Singapore relations including supply of Johor water, Pedra Branca, 1990 Points of Agreement, Crooked bridge, Land reclamation. The water chapter was particularly illuminating on the differences in psyche of Malaysians and Singaporeans and how misperceptions are abound in international affairs. Each side was using different pricing formula to arrive at different figures that they considered fair and reasonable (p. 67). Malaysians saw the ‘water agreements as inequitable’; price of raw water sold by Johor to Singapore unchanged at 3 Malaysian cents per 1000 gallon and treated water bought back by Johor at 50 Malaysian cents; meanwhile, Singapore ‘raked huge profits, gallon for gallon, by selling treated water from Johor to ships berthed in Singapore at prices hundreds of times higher than the 3 Malaysian cents paid to Johor’ (p. 77–8). Malaysians viewed Singaporeans as ‘people who do not know the meaning of fair play or how to give and take in negotiations’ (p. 78). The Malaysian perception of unfairness is due to mismatched expectations and information asymmetry. Assuming SGD 1 is worth MYR 1.50 in 1990, Singapore buys water from Johor at SGD 0.02. Assume the operating cost of water treatment is SGD 1.50 then, Singapore then sells the SGD 1.50 water back to Malaysia at a discounted rate of SGD 0.33. Singapore recovers the perpetual loss of SGD 1.17 by selling to other countries’ ships berthed in Singapore at SGD 2.00 (hundred higher times that cost price from Johor). For each 1000 gallon sold, Singapore only profits SGD 0.50. Singapore needs to sell more than twice the amount of water to other countries before it can recoup its losses and start profiting from water sales. Hence, the meaning of ‘fair play’ really depends on where one stands and perfect information is often unavailable.

The penultimate two chapters might not fit so neatly in this book but it alludes to Mohamad’s central thesis: ‘it is all Lee’s fault’. In ‘The Defence of Singapore’, Mohamad argued that Malaysia does not want to take Singapore back (p. 270) and hence all the focus on defence was “the teaching by Lee that Singapore should never trust its neighbours … imagine enemies everywhere and perceive threats where none exists” (p. 271).  The End of  Lee Kuan Yew Era chapter was the climax all-out ad hominem attack on Lee that all Malaysia–Singapore foreign policy impasses were his fault (p. 286-8) for micromanaging most aspects of life in Singapore until 2011 (p. 279) and that ‘Singapore’s third generation leaders have absorbed too deeply all of Lee’s teaching and methods that it will be equally difficult for them to make any change of substance or style in the conduct of Singapore’s international relations’ (p. 289). Mohamad has been consistent across the chapters in building his case against Lee as an authoritarian strongman, arrogant (p. 26) and bend on getting his way across from 1965 to 2011. His reading of Lee’s tears during separation and reasons behind his disappointment is telling: Mohamad chose the extreme negative position of interpreting the facts. “Most probably, the secret behind Lee’s tears of 9 August 1965 was less about his anguish in suffering the indignity of being kicked out of Malaysia but more about his regret about having overextended his hand and acted less than reasonable or sensible. It was about his naivety in misjudging political realities” (p. 21). “Lee Kuan Yew left Malaysia with a baggage full of bitterness and a heart filled with anger” (p. 47). In his focused attack, Mohamad ignored the influence of  Lee’s Team (influential Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam), global and local circumstances behind each foreign policy decision. A multi-factorial analysis would have been more persuasive.

In conclusion, Mohamad wrote a comprehensive account of Malaysia–Singapore relations from a Malaysian perspective, a feat only a practitioner with his credentials in the Malaysian public administration can accomplish. However, readers are encouraged to read both Mohamad and Singapore insider accounts as Lee before forming opinions on Malaysia–Singapore relations.  As the term ‘history’ implies, it is ‘his-story’. Each one is entitled to his/her view of the story. Reality might be a messy combination of different perspectives. Nevertheless, the merit of the area studies approach to International Relations is to bring forth thick descriptions, richer meanings, and subjective interpretations to enrich the disciplinary approach to International Relations which assumes objectivity of knowledge and universal applicability of grand theories.

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