Good sentiments towards
    Malaysians on the rise

  Star, Malaysia
May 8, 2005

Insight Down South By Seah Chiang Nee

SINCE separation from Malaysia 40 years ago, Singaporeans have rarely regarded Malaysia as a separate country like any other.

When they express resentment against “foreign talent” coming here and taking over their jobs, it doesn’t include their immediate northern neighbours who probably make up the largest number.

A Malaysian working or studying here is not regarded as a foreigner in the real sense.

There’s a historical reason behind it, of course. Not only has the Malaysians’ coming and going long been a fact of life, but the influx itself has benefited the republic’s economy.

Half the first Cabinet in independent Singapore originated from Malaysia.

The popular former president Wee Kim Wee, who passed away last week, was from Malacca.

In fact, without the input of Malaysians, the city would not be what it is today.

Young and old football fans (read almost every one) still remember the old Malaysia Cup days with fondness, and they could become a happy lot if the competition could be revived, with some remodelling, of course.

To many citizens, Malaysia – especially Johor – is a rich, cheap source of  food, and has a lower cost of living and space to enable them to stretch their legs.

In recent weeks, Singaporeans’ “feel good” sentiments towards Malaysia have been on the rise.

Leaders of the two countries reached agreement on Singapore’s land reclamation work along the eastern and western parts of the Straits of Johor in Singapore, one of a number of thorny bilateral disputes.

As part of the deal, Singapore agreed to pay close to S$500,000 to various parties in Malaysia. In return, Singapore retains its right to reclaim land for development within its territorial waters.

The agreement has raised hope that other conflicts – including a long-term water pact, a proposed bridge to replace the Causeway, and re-siting of Malaysia’s Customs and immigration facilities – would also be settled.

More telling are the improved sentiments on both sides. It is leading the two governments to study the lifting of a 36-year-old ban on each other’s newspapers.

For an old hand like me, this removal – when it happens – will be tantamount to finally relegating the old merger quarrel to history where it belongs. It’s about time, too.

A whole new generation has passed. The two prime ministers were in their 20s in 1965 when the chaotic split happened – Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was 26 and Mr Lee Hsien Loong was 13 and just entering secondary school.

Most of their Cabinet colleagues and members of Parliament are in the same age bracket with little living memory of those days.

If at all, the worry lies on the younger generation knowing not enough of history to be able to avoid the past problems.

The newspaper ban was imposed just before the May 1969 general election in Malaysia to reduce a war of words after Singapore was ejected.

Getting rid of it will signify a sharp reduction in distrust and suspicion.

Singapore had been worried of Malay-language newspapers playing a guardian role to “protect” the Malays in Singapore or influence their attitude towards the government.

Malaysia, too, also worried about Singapore’s press being used to influence the Malaysian Chinese or promote the People’s Action Party’s old “Malaysian Malaysia” theme.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said it was time to lift the ban.

“Both the Chinese in Malaysia and the Malays in Singapore are a new generation,” he said. “They no longer read the other side’s newspapers and believe it refers to them. Their context is a different context.”

During the water dispute, the Malays in Singapore generally rallied behind their government while the ethnic Chinese (including those working in Singapore) supported Kuala Lumpur’s position.

Domestic and external considerations also play a part. For a long time, many Malaysians viewed the wealthier Singaporeans as arrogant, flaunting their “superiority” over their poorer or less educated neighbours.

If true, the picture has changed with the economic decline.

In fact, I have detected more Internet talk among Singaporeans about the need for merger with a larger country, ranging from Australia or New Zealand to Malaysia, for long-term survival.

Think-tank researcher Yeo Lay Hwee said Malaysians were competing head-on in more and more areas with Singapore and were gaining confidence whereas many in Singapore had a greater sense of vulnerability.

But suspicions still lingered, Yeo added. “The knee-jerk reaction among some in Kuala Lumpur is that if Singapore agrees to sign anything, then the agreement must be to its advantage and at the expense of Malaysia’s interests.

“This is the perception, even if the reality is that both sides benefit. Almost no Malaysian leader could sign any agreement with Singapore, even if he wanted to. He would risk political opponents accusing him of selling out Malaysia’s interest to Singapore.

In Singapore, too, misconception stands in the way.

“One underlying problem for Singapore is the perception that narrow economic self-interest is our only guide,” Yeo said. “Singapore thinks that economics logic and rationality should govern all relations. Unfortunately, our neighbours do not operate with the same simple logic. Hence the frustration.”

There are, however, compelling forces for closer relations.

Separately, they are facing rising competition from emerging large economies like China and India. Together they can strengthen each other in trade, tourism and investment.

There are political reasons, too. Asia is entering a new regional power struggle between the US and China that could pull in others. Small states like Singapore and Malaysia could be caught in the middle and become vulnerable.

An example is the recent spat between Beijing and Tokyo, which could flare up again.

In a recent speech in Washington, Foreign Minister George Yeo said China’s economic explosion was transforming Asia’s political landscape, posing problems and opportunities for its neighbours and for the US.

“If we in Singapore position ourselves right, then I think we will ride a huge wave into the future. But if we get it wrong, we will be engulfed and will be history ourselves,” he said.

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website