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Singapore-Malaysia bilateral issues crop up again over “mixed signals”

Updated On: Dec 08, 2006

Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations seemed to hit another bump after Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong "complained" of mixed signals from Malaysiaover investments in Johor.

Lee was speaking in response to the recent call by Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak for closer economic ties between Malaysia and Singapore.  While he welcomed closer ties between the two neighbours and "agreed completely" with Najib about the need for both countries to intensify cooperation if they want to survive in a competitive global economy, Lee noted that the Johor government had expressed reservations about Singapore's participation in the development of an economic zone in southern Johor and hoped "that these mixed signals will be cleared up soon so that investments will flow."

While top Malaysian leaders have been saying they welcome Singapore's participation in a new project to develop southern Johor, The Straits Times has reported conflicting signals sent by Johor state officials, who have urged the federal government to make sure Singapore did not benefit from Johor's development.  For instance, Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman said last month that the Iskandar Development Region (IDR) - was capable of pulling in investors on its own and therefore not in need of spillover economic effects from Singapore.  Following the latest events however, Abdul Ghani was reported as saying on Monday (4 December) that he welcomed investors from Singapore, denying that his state had sent mixed signals about the Republic's participation. 

This theme was also taken up by a few speakers at the Umno general assembly last month.  One delegate said the proposed passport-free zones in Johor should not become an extension of Singapore.  The Sultan of Johor also added to the uncertainty during the launch of the southern Johor project last month when he called for the Causeway linking Singapore and Johor to be torn down.  It is important to note however, that all these barbed statements about Singapore investments are likely to have been largely political posturing in the wake of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's comments in September about the marginalisation of the Chinese community in Malaysia.  Additionally, in a clarification, Johor Umno Youth chief Razali Ibrahim told The Straits Times on Monday (4 December) that while certain Umno members may hold different views, Najib's statement was official policy. 

In this context, Lee’s statements appear to be a call for a complete clarity of vision between the Johor and federal governments over the project's development.   Malaysia’s federal government at least, seems to be serious about its business ties with traditional rival Singapore.  Very early on, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi had said that he would like Singapore to participate in the development of the IDR.  Furthermore, Najib’s response on Tuesday (5 December) to media queries about Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s comments, saying he failed to understand what Lee meant, appeared to be a relatively mild one.

If the Malaysian government is serious about improving economic cooperation with Singapore, it will need first to convince and win over its state officials to believe in the mutual benefits of economic cooperation.  If things do work out, the two traditional rivals could well be headed for a new era of cooperation.

Sources:

PM Lee Hopeful Mixed Signals From Johor Will Be Cleared (Bernama, 4 December 2006)

Najib questions 'mixed signals' comment (The Straits Times, 6 December 2006)

Najib's call for cooperation may be more than posturing (The Straits Times, 6 December 2006)

S'pore welcome to invest, insists Menteri Besar Ghani (The Straits Times, 5 December 2006)

Johor asks: What mixed signals? (Today, 5 December 2006)