Taking the measure of Malaysia – and our leaders

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in October 2018. (File photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)

Some of you might know this Singlish phrase, about how if you are weak, others will “makan’’ you. It’s not about someone eating your lunch, but trying to swallow you up if you display a weak point. So you have your armour on and someone thinks he sees a chink. He tries to chisel away at it to make the hole bigger.

The phrase always comes to my mind when I read about yet another Malaysian attempt at chiseling. I thought we were done with land space connectivity issues even though I think $15 million sounds quite little for the supposed abortive costs the Malaysians have to pay Singapore for deferring the High Speed Rail project. The payment deadline is next month, by the way.

Okay, there’s still the proposed crooked bridge between the two countries which the Malaysians think can be built without Singapore’s concurrence or support. I wonder if this engineering feat will cost more than the billions for the HSR project. In any case, like the Malaysians said, it’s not our problem.

Then there is the perennial water pricing issue which Malaysians have reduced to a soundbite: “Why are we selling water to Singapore at such a low price and buying it back at such a high price?’’ It sounds seductive until you know that that the high price Malaysia pays for treated water is a very subsidised price. And it is being re-sold to ordinary Malaysians for much higher. You know what? The Malaysians could always treat their own water, if they can do it at much lower cost. In any case, there is an agreement to talk about it – may it just stay that way.

We had a far stabler bilateral relationship when ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak was in charge, even though he too tried to play the bogeyman card in his last days by re-opening the Pedra Branca issue which we thought had been dealt with in 2008. But with the Malaysian election over in May this year, returned premier Mahathir Mohamad said he was dropping the case which had been filed before the International Court of Justice in The Hague the year before.

But in general, Mr Najib was far friendlier to Singapore than Dr Mahathir has ever been. Singaporeans buy property in Iskandar, Singapore developers are involved in joint projects. Malaysians still travel to Singapore to work, or live here as permanent residents. Singaporeans do not consider Malaysians “foreigners’’, so integrated are they in the Singapore workforce. By all accounts, Mr Najib and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong get along, but this relationship has been fodder for critics of Singapore, who try to make malicious connections between Mr Najib’s current legal woes and Singapore’s banking system.

It has always seemed to me so odd that the same people who accuse Singapore of being unbending, unsentimental and rule-abiding, should suddenly see the country as a nefarious conspirator working in the shadows to help out a “buddy’’.

Those of us with long memories probably have no illusions about what a Dr M government means for Singapore. Even when he was a guest here last month, he couldn’t help jibing about Singapore’s junior status as the smaller twin. In fact, if I were to put out every belittling remark he has said about the country since he came into power, I could be accused of inciting disharmony.

Malaysia now thinks it sees other chinks in Singapore’s armour – water and air links. Only the G has any real clue about what has been happening behind the scenes that has led to the recent public explosion of statements, emails and historical facts. In fact, I doubt if the Singapore G would have said anything if Transport Minister Anthony Loke did not complain to Malaysian Parliament on Tuesday about Singapore’s “unilateral’’ decision to broadcast a navigation system for Seletar Airport.

This Instrument Landing System would require planes to make their approach over Johor, which Mr Loke said would inconvenience residents and jeopardise port operations at Pasir Gudang. He said Singapore was informed of Malaysia’s position on Nov 28 and 29 but the Republic went ahead with its plan on Dec 1 anyway.

“It is not our stance to take a confrontational approach with any party, much less our neighbours. But this involves our sovereignty, which the Malaysian government will defend in the strongest terms. This involves our airspace, which we will defend, and the interest of Johoreans,” he said.

What he didn’t say was that the Transport ministry here had been raising the issue with his officials since last December, in meetings and in emails – but received no response. Or that Singapore’s right to manage the space had been in place since 1974. Or maybe, he simply didn’t want Seletar airport to take off as an airport for commercial flights, especially since the first client would be Malaysia’s own Firefly.

Still, Mr Loke went on about “reclaiming’’ the airspace over Johor in stages as a matter of “sovereignty’’. He didn’t seem to consider the point about making sure planes don’t collide in mid-air in the congested airspace, or that other countries also let other foreign parties handle parts of their airspace in terms of safety.

Now that he has been reminded of this, he now claims that Malaysia has better capacity to manage the area. “I understand there are safety issues that needs to be considered, but I am not asking for the airspace to be returned next month.’’

But it’s probably still no-go for Firefly in the meantime? What’s happening at Seletar Airport?

If there was any unilateral action taken, it was by Malaysia which, on October 25, gazetted extended port limits for Johor. Despite protests lodged by Singapore, vessels from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Department Malaysia have been venturing into Singapore’s waters over the past two weeks.

It seems that both countries are looking at different maps. Singapore said Johor Baru port limit now “extends beyond even the limits of Malaysia’s territorial sea claim in the area, as set out in Malaysia’s own 1979 map, which Singapore has never accepted”.

Guess what? That 1979 map showed that Pedra Branca fell under Malaysia’s territory. Didn’t we win the case and didn’t Malaysia just drop its claims over the island? Now the port limits are even further? It boggles the mind.

Dr Mahathir has denied the encroachment. “We can measure to see if it is true or not, but we had not touched their border.”

The wonder of Malaysian politicians is that they always make everything public, and have no qualms slagging off their neighbour. Here, the politicians only go public when cornered. It is reflective of the measured, rational style of Singapore’s leadership. But there is really only so much belittling we can take. So far, the 3G leaders have been doing the talking. Will the 4G leadership take a new approach?

Time to take out a measuring tape, and not just for defining the borders.

Related stories:

‘Urgent need’ for Malaysia to stop intrusions into Singapore’s Territorial Waters: Balakrishnan

Malaysian government ships encroaching on Singapore waters for past 2 weeks: MOT

Malaysian sea incursions have violated Singapore’s sovereignty, international law: Khaw