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Badawi-Lee meeting: Sign of good things to come for Singapore and Malaysia?

Updated On: May 18, 2007

That certainly seems to be the general sentiment after the informal and relaxed meeting of the heads of the two countries. According to Channel News Asia Singapore, analysts have even dubbed the “latest Singapore-Malaysia developments a breakthrough as they believe the right context has been set for the eventual resolution of bilateral issues”.

During the two-day retreat in Langkawi, things were relaxed and social activities helped strengthen the bilateral ties. Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong said, “The prime ministers are here, ministers are here, we played golf together, we talked together, we spent the evening together, and we should this regularly.” There was even a durian feast which Malaysia PM Abdullah Badawi termed “durian diplomacy”.

As opposed to earlier speculation, “hard topics” such as the longstanding disputes regarding “the price of water sold to Singapore, the use of Malaysian airspace by the Singapore air force, the development of KTM Bhd land in Singapore, the new bridge to replace the Causeway and the early withdrawal of Central Provident Fund contributions by Malaysians working in Singapore” were not discussed, the Star noted.

Both leaders acknowledged that while they needed to be resolved, the Langkawi retreat was not the proper venue. Lee said, “They are not easy matters to be resolved, otherwise we would not have inherited them from our predecessors. So we ought to deal with them in a way that is acceptable to both sides and at the same time it must not affect our bilateral relations.” Lee hinted at international arbitration as a possibility, as is the ongoing case with Pedra Branca (or Pulau Batu Putih –as called by Malaysia). Lee said, “Whichever way the judgement goes, Singapore will accept, Malaysia will accept. I think we will move on from there and that’s one possible model on how we can deal with other issues as well.” Hearings on the Pedra Branca at the International Court of Justice will begin 6 November 2007.

On the part of Malaysia, Badawi said, these would be resolved at a later date as they did not “want to get bogged down by these issues while there are other things [they] would like to do”.  

This is a wise move according to Yang Razali Kassim, Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, when interviewed by Channel News Asia. He said, “I would think it would have been unwise if the leaders had attempted to tackle the outstanding bilateral issues at this meeting. The reason I say this is because you first have to set the atmospherics right, and I think they have achieved that. So once that has been done, the next stage is to go for the difficult part. These are very entrenched issues and they have to be tackled with sensitivity at the same time, and I think Prime Minister Abdullah and Prime Minister Lee are new leaders who can actually give it a crack.”

The main topic that was actually discussed was cooperation on the Iskandar Development Region (IDR) in Johor state. Lee announced, “It is fundamentally good for [Singapore] if the project takes off and succeeds”.” Thus Singapore has pledged “to help Malaysia develop a multibillion-dollar economic zone”. It has also called “the venture's success a litmus test for cooperation between Southeast Asian countries as they compete with China and India”, the AP noted. The plans underway are for the establishment of “a joint ministerial committee to study ways to cooperate” such that once complete, “the zone would be almost three times the size ofSingapore”. The AP also reported that “Malaysia plans an investment of 47 billion ringgit ($14 billion) over the next five years, and 360 billion ringgit over 20 years”.

Malaysia PM Badawi said, “Singapore will invest. Singapore wants to invest. [Moreover] the two countries have agreed to make travel easier between Singaporeand IDR by issuing chip-embedded smart cards that would make passports unnecessary”.

As to opposition to Singapore investment, Badawi firmly put his domestic detractors in their place. In a parliamentary session on Wednesday (after the Langkawi retreat), Badawi silenced his critics who were saying that collaboration with Singapore would result in Malaysia being on the losing end. The Star reported Badawi as saying, “As far as investment is concerned, it is not for the committee to decide. We have other bodies to decide on (such) proposals. Instead, the committee will look into such matters as how to speed up access between the IDR and Singapore”. He added, “I do not know what Singapore wants to invest in...Like any other investors from any part of the world, (if) they have proposals to invest, they have to go to the same body.” His bottomline was –“They (Singapore) have the money and they are serious about it. I see no reason why you must stop Singapore. Give me one good reason why should I stop Singapore (from investing).”

Such firmness to maintain good relations is welcome, such that Johan Saravanamuttu, A Malaysian scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said, “The Johor UMNO is now more or less in favour of better relations with Singapore compared to the previous situation with foreign policy under Dr Mahathir. It's a very important first step in the warming up of relations between Singapore and Malaysia. It is also a very concrete development in terms of relations.”

Sources:

Win, lose or draw flak? (Today, 17 May 2007)'Durian diplomacy' (Straits Times, 16 May 2007)Joint panel 'won't look at S'pore investment' (Straits Times, 16 May 2007)

Singapore Backs Malaysia Project (AP, 16 May 2007)

'Durian diplomacy' (Straits Times, 16 May 2007)Joint panel 'won't look at S'pore investment' (Straits Times, 16 May 2007)

Malaysia-Singapore Agree On Joint Committee to Oversee Cooperation in IDR (Bernama, 16 May 2007)

Lee: Issues will be resolved (Star, 16 May 2007)

Malacca: Who's to pay for smooth sailing? (Asia Times Online, 16 May 2007)Analysts call decision for ministerial committee a breakthrough (ChannelNewsAsia, 15 May 2007)

Malaysia, S'pore Talks Point to Greater Things to Come (Bernama, 16 May 2007)