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First Lee-Badawi retreat: Mutual ties strong enough to withstand challenging agenda?

Updated On: May 15, 2007

The first retreat between the heads of Singapore and Malaysia seems to be off to a good start. Despite Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysia PM Abdullah Badawi having felt under the weather over the weekend, both are resolutely headed for Langkawi to begin their 2-day discussion on 14 May, Monday.

 

The mutual trust between both countries must be at a high point for the agenda tabled for this retreat aims at tackling some longstanding sensitive issues such as “the sale of water and the use of airspace and land owned by Malaysian rail company KTM in Singapore”, ChannelNewsAsia reported the Malaysian government as saying. This point has been reiterated by the New Straits Times of Malaysia which also added that Malaysia hopes to discuss linkages to Singaporevia more bridges, the supply of sand to Singapore and the liberalization of air space.

 

The New Straits Times quoted Badawi as saying, “I believe that one day there may be several bridges linkingSingapore and Malaysia.” Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar has also said that “both leaders want to look beyond unresolved issues to future co-operation [and] this includes the Iskandar Development Region in Johor Baru… [Malaysia wants] to go beyond immediate bilateral issues… there are a lot of things which are open to the leaders to discuss.”

With regard to the all-important Iskandar Development Region (IDR) that aims to be an economic powerhouse of Malaysia, this “multi-billion dollar plan to develop Malaysia's southern state of Johor [needs] Singapore's support… to succeed, as it would send a positive message to international investors and the country had strengths Malaysia could work with and tap on”, the Straits Times quoted a Dow Jones report as saying. Nasser Ismail, the chief spokesman for the Iskandar Regional Development Authority, which helps market IDR and draw in investors, has also told Dow Jones that “Malaysia was bent on drawing US$6 billion of private-sector investments into the region over the next seven years” and has since gained US$2 billion in investment. More tax breaks in addition to the incentives declared in March will also be announced soon to entice foreign investors.

The Singapore Foreign Ministry has also announced, “This will be the first retreat between Lee and Abdullah. The retreat will be an opportunity for the two prime ministers to discuss possible new areas of cooperation and build on the longstanding close ties between the two countries. It is also a chance for the ministers from both sides to interact in an informal setting and renew their friendship.”

 

Such official sentiment expressed by both countries cast an optimistic light on mutual cooperation –a marked improvement when ties were particularly strained in the past. However, it has been a mark of the Badawi administration to proffer amicable gestures towards Singapore, commentators have noted.

 

For instance, ChannelNewsAsia interviewed K. Kesavapany, the Director at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and former High Commissioner to Malaysia, who said, “When I was in Kuala Lumpur from 1997 to 2002… the two countries could quarrel so openly… places where investment decisions [were] made, people were wondering whether it was judicious and wise to go and do investments in places where the relationship was topsy-turvy… Now, they are seeing a situation where both governments are creating conditions for FDI (foreign direct investment), for transfer of technology and new investments to come in. So this will benefit the region. The other point is that both Malaysia andSingapore are the leading economies in ASEAN. So, if we cooperate, we could be the locomotives for driving this promise of an ASEAN economic community by 2015. There are a lot of areas to be discussed and that's why both sides have decided to engage in this retreat-type of exercise.”

 

Nonetheless, Kesavapany was pragmatic regarding bilateral ties. He cautioned, “Nothing is preordained or preconceived in advance. So you make progress where you can; in areas where you cannot make progress, leave it aside to be dealt with at a later stage.”

This is exactly the stand Malaysia is taking regarding the two-day talks. Badawi declared, “We’ll go to Langkawi with an open mind... to look at the latest developments.”

 

And indeed informality seemed to be the order of the day as Straits Times reported that there was no fixed agenda for the meeting and discussions will be kept “free-wheeling”.  (15 May 2007)

 

Sources:

Informality the order of the day as PM meets Abdullah (Straits Times, 15 May 2007)

Abdullah: Let's restart talks on disputes (Straits Times, 14 May 2007)

Allies and partners in globalisation (Straits Times, 14 May 2007)

Heat dazes Abdullah but S'pore still on (Straits Times, 14 May 2007)

Abdullah and Hsien Loong to forge closer ties at retreat (Star, 14 May 2007)

Abdullah, Hsien Loong to seek new way forward (NST, 14 May 2007)

Retreat an Opportunity to Discuss New Areas of Cooperation (Bernama, 13 May 2007)

PMs' retreat to boost S'pore-M'sian ties (ChannelNewsAsia, 13 May 2007)

Malaysian PM does not rule out more road links with Singapore (Channel NewsAsia, 11 May 2007)