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Cooperate, but Do it Carefully

Updated On: May 25, 2007

Last week, both Prime Ministers of Malaysia and Singapore agreed to establish a joint ministerial committee to look into the development of the Iskandar Development Region (IDR), a massive project in the south of Malaysia (in the state of Johor).

Malaysian High Commissioner to SingaporeN Paraeswaran said that one of the key concerns of the new joint committee will be ensuring hassle free travel betweenSingapore and Malaysia. Possible ideas include having a smart card for immigration and even the construction of a mass rapid transit train line between the two countries.

A World Bank economist, Dr Shahid Yusuf  who had been involved in discussions with the Malaysian officials on the IDR project noted that an urban growth area comprising of Malaysia and Singapore would have obvious economic benefits. However, he warned that, “making it happen will require delicate and detailed political negotiations sustained by goodwill and a readiness to compromise on the part of both sides… National commitments will need to be matched with local commitments anchored to a firm belief in mutual advantage, a realistic appraisal of alternatives, and an acceptable sharing of benefits.”

Indeed, soon after the idea of the joint committee was announced, there were rumblings in some quarters in Malaysia that Malaysia’s sovereignty would be affected and that Singapore could ‘meddle’ in Malaysia’s internal affairs.

The former Malaysian ambassador to the European Union, Belgium, and Luxembourg welcomed the formation of a special ministerial committee to focus on cooperation in Iskandar. However, he warned that the interests of Singapore and Malaysia ‘are not identical and they never will be.’

The Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) even went to the extent of issuing a statement clarifying that the committee would not be involved in running the project. Nor was the committee intended to discuss other bilateral issues such as the price of water Malaysia supplies to Singapore, the Central Provident Fund withdrawals for Malaysian workers and a bridge to replace the causeway. A MFA spokesman reiterated, on 22 May, “We will proceed with it only if the Malaysian and Johor authorities want us to do so” in response to media queries on concerns voiced by some Malaysian commentators over the proposed joint committee.

It is unfortunate that the good idea of the political leadership of both countries has been caught in domestic political posturing. After all, Singapore is already one of the largest investor in the project. Singapore’s purchase of industrial plot in the IDR is estimated to reach RM85 million by the end of 2007. According to Mr Wan Abdullah, managing director of UEM Land (IDR’s developer) Singaporeans make up 35% of homeowners at Ledang Heights, an exclusive site at Nusajaya, which is part of the IDR.

Cooperation between Singapore and Malaysia is like walking on egg-shells. Both sides need and depend on each other but they cannot express this interdependence in too conspicuous manner and have to tread carefully.   (24 May 2007)

Sources:

Japanese PM says Johor IDR is “a brilliant idea” (Straits Times, 24 May 2007)

Malaysia Will Take the Lead In Joint IDR Panel: MFA (Straits Times, 23 May 2007)

Joint panel 'to focus on fuss-free access' to IDR(Straits Times, 23 May 2007)

MFA: Joint committee will not be involved in running IDR(Business Times, 23 May 2007)

Neighbours first and foremost; S'pore firms still the focus of Iskandar project despite its global aspirations(Today, 23 May 2007)

Clearing the air over IDR; S'pore debunks misconceptions about control (Today, 23 May 2007)

S'pore-IDR tie-up could yield long-term gains(Business Times Singapore, 21 May 2007)

Saying goodbye to past stresses and strains(New Straits Times, 21 May 2007)

Bridging a New High in Bilateral Relations (Bernama, 20 May 2007)