The intricate neighbourly ties - Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore

Updated On: Oct 16, 2007

In an unprecedented show of solidarity and goodwill, Hari Raya Aidilfitri messages by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong were for the first time broadcast in Malaysia last Friday (12 October), on the eve of Hari Raya.

This was mutually reciprocated by Indonesia and Singapore where Hari Raya messages of Abdullah and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak were broadcast by TVRI and Metro TV inIndonesia, and Singapore's MediaCorp.

While such gestures are purely symbolic, it is perhaps important to underlie the understanding at the highest political level on the need for good relations among the three closest neighbours despite the occasional hiccups in relations.  The ongoing dispute Indonesia has with Malaysia over the ill-treatment of its Indonesian foreign workers, the high-handedness of its vigilante corps (RELA) and apparent theft of the “Rasa Sayang” folk song has not abated. Indonesia has already threatened Malaysia with tough action if it does not shape up its attitude. Malaysia on the other hand is trying to lie low and take things in a rational manner. However, there are signs that Malaysia is getting fed up.

Malaysia Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar has exhorted the Indonesian media and politicians to stop fanning the flames of resentment by blowing the apparent abuse of Indonesians by RELA out of proportion. He said that though current ties are strong, the Indonesia media and politicians demonise Malaysia making them look “as if we are horrible, unfair and cruel people who deliberately persecute Indonesians”. He urged for some restraint so that the bilateral relations which the two countries have worked so hard to achieve will not be wrecked.

Syed Hamid also reported on the cabinet’s views on how to manage the spat. He said, “We agreed that the best defence is to act swiftly and give prompt explanations whenever incidents involving Indonesians occur. Any delay creates a bad image for Malaysia." He assured that any wrongdoing would be subject to the legal system and called for the Indonesian media to report fairly on Malaysia.Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s interview with American journalist Tom Plate on 27 September in which he referred to the system in Malaysia had raised some eyebrows in the latter. Lee told Plate that Singaporewould welcome rejoining Malaysia if the latter practised meritocracy. He said, “We are a standing indictment of all the things that they (Malaysia) can be doing differently. If they would just educate the Chinese and Indians, use them and treat them as their citizens, they can equal us and even do better than us and we would be happy to rejoin them.” This is the second time Lee has mentioned the issue of merger –the first being in 1996, and highlighted the different systems in Singapore and Malaysia. His rationale for merger are based on economic pragmatism. Lee said, “We are in Southeast Asia, in the midst of a turbulent, volatile, unsettled region. Singapore is a superstructure built on what? On 700 square kilometres and a lot of smart ideas that have worked so far but the whole thing could come undone very quickly.”

However, all this talk about merging and criticizing of the Malaysian system have raised some eyebrows.  Ooi Kee Beng, fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, stressed, “The chances of a re-merger in 1996 and in 2007 are the same – zero. The very idea of a re-merger on Singapore's terms is appalling to most Malays (in Malaysia) and any move in that direction would be political suicide for a Malaysian politician to take.”

Compared to the first time this was raised and the loud reactions, this time the response was much more muted, perhaps an indication of the maturing bilateral ties.  Minister in the Prime Minister’s department, Nazri Abdul Azia said MM Lee’s remarks about Malaysia-Singapore merger should not be taken seriously, and the Prime Minister himself, Dato Abdullah Badawi had refused to be drawn into the controversy.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar also felt that Malaysia did not need to react to Lee's remarks. Najib said, “I feel he (Lee) is just testing the waters. So, it is unnecessary for me to respond. What is important is for us to do things our way in Malaysia. We know of our way to achieve success that can enable us to establish harmony. The challenges in Malaysia are more complex than those in Singapore but we have established harmony well.”Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said Malaysia had never talked about merger and there was no need to do so now just because Lee suggested it. He said, “We have never discussed the question of a merger in the Cabinet. I don't think we need to react to his views. We know what we are doing. The most important thing is (that) we want to build our nation. We have our own uniqueness.”

However there were also other interesting responses.  DAP chairman Karpal Singh gave another angle saying that given Singapore’s limited resources, "Pure logic demands that one day Singapore will have to return to the fold by rejoining Malaysia for its survival, whether it likes to or not".  If merger happens as Singh predicts, then Singapore would be the one to eat humble pie, rather than Malaysia acquiescing toSingapore’s demands on meritocracy and governing standards.  (16 October 2007)


KL minister dismisses MM’s merger remarks (Straits Times, 16 October 2007)

No Comments on Kuan Yew's Idea On S'pore Rejoining M'sia  (Bernama, 13 October 2007)

'Kuan Yew should not dwell on the past' (New Straits Times, 13 October 2007)

Syed Hamid: Stop the bashing (NST, 12 October 2007)

RTM airs Indonesian, Singaporean leaders' messages (Star 12 October 2007)

A scary Singapore visionary (Bangkok Post, 13 October 2007)

Kuan Yew Says Happy To Rejoin Malaysia If... (Bernama, 11 October 2007)

MM Lee speaks about idea of Singapore-Malaysia reunion once again (Channel News Asia, 11 October 2007)

LKY interview with Tom Plate (UCLA Media, 27 September 2007) at http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article-southeastasia.asp?parentid=79541