S’pore and M’sia will both lose if we adopt a "policy of minimum engagement"

Former Transparency International Malaysia chief Tunku Abdul Aziz’s 18 October commentary in Malaysia’s New Straits Times (below) makes me feel both sad and a tad bit annoyed. Sad, because of his call for Malaysia to adopt a “policy of minimum engagement” with Singapore, which he accuses of operating on the basis of “exacting the maximum advantage she can wangle out of any deal, no matter what”. Annoyed, because he somehow fails to see the plank in Malaysia’s own eye when painting Singapore as being legalistic and uncultivable.

It sometimes takes an outside observer to point out one’s flaws. Singapore would do well to conduct some introspection before summarily dismissing Tunku Abdul Aziz’s criticisms. It is true that Singaporeans and our government seem to always want to win at all costs. Kiasuism (being afraid to lose) is a national culture that permeates not just the everyday behaviour of ordinary Singaporeans, but goes all the way to the top levels of government. Our government, by its own admission, does tend to be cold and clinical in the way it operates. Although observing international law and abiding by agreements are obviously very important, we do ourselves a disservice when we buy into the dogma that being cold and clinical in our approach to foreign relations is the only way to secure our national interests. Showing a bit more of empathy may not always reap us commensurate benefits, but it certainly won’t make us more enemies.

I’m glad the Tunku understands what it feels like to be a tiny country and have a neighbour 2771 times our size calling us a “little red dot”. We have every reason to feel insecure at times. When an Indonesian president suggests that Indonesia and Malaysia should team up to cut off Singapore’s water supply, or a former Malaysian prime minister frivolously jokes about bombing Singapore with his MiG warplanes, how can that not make us wary of our close neighbours?

Malaysia is Singapore’s largest trading partner, and Singapore is Malaysia’s second largest trading partner and its biggest source of tourist dollars. Many Singaporeans and Malaysians still have relatives across the Causeway. We celebrate pretty much the same festivals, eat the same food, speak with the same accent. When I am abroad and I hear someone speaking with a Singlish accent, I would always ask the person whether he is Singaporean or Malaysian, because it’s hard to tell our accents apart. We share the same desire to build cohesive, multiracial and multi-religious societies. If you compare our similarities and differences, the scale would definitely tip in favour of the former.

There’s a very competitive world out there waiting to devour small economies like Singapore and Malaysia. The most practical solution, moving forward, would be to put aside our petty quarrels and cooperate to tackle the challenge of globalisation together. As such, the calls from some quarters in Singapore for an economic union with Malaysia should be given some consideration. We should seek to engage each other more, rather than less. Engagement should not only be at government-to-government level, but also at the institution-to-institution and people-to-people levels as well.

Most of what the writer described was based on the issues of contention that flared up during Dr Mahathir’s period in office as prime minister. There is no better time to engage Malaysia than now, while it is under the leadership of Abdullah Badawi – who is probably the most down-to-earth and pragmatic prime minister Malaysia has had since independence. Both Singapore and Malaysia should grasp this opportunity to make hay while the sun shines. Singapore and Malaysia should aim for maximum engagement now, not minimum.


Singapore is simply a neighbour too far
New Straits Times
18 Oct 2006

Singapore has every right to pursue her own agenda as she sees fit. We only hope that she will grant us a similar right to follow ours without screaming foul play at every opportunity and imputing improper motives.

Individual can, within limits, determine who their neighbours should be. Nations, unfortunately, do not enjoy that luxury. As far as we are concerned, Singapore is a case in point.

We must concede that Singapore has every right to pursue her own agenda as she sees fit. We can only hope that she will grant us a similar right to follow ours without screaming foul play at every opportunity, and imputing improper motives.

Neither of us owes the other a living. We have no hidden agenda, and do not harbour or aspire to any expansionist or territorial ambitions. If we had wanted to hang on to what many of us then considered an abomination, we would not have shown Singapore the door.

Being small is not always easy, especially when you are trying to flex your muscles and punch above your weight. To be constantly reminded that you are nothing more than a red dot on the face of the earth as President B.J. Habibi of Indonesia once did, somewhat insensitively, must have touched some very raw nerves, especially for a country that can justifiably claim a string of successes on so many fronts.

To us, Singapore appears to behave too much like an insecure lover, forever demanding to know how much she is loved. The lack of confidence is difficult to understand when she is not without ample assets herself, for the entire world to see. The insatiable craving for praise and adoration would point to some flaw in the national character, but this we know cannot be the case because the affairs of Singapore are in the hands of highly capable and rational men and women.

To say that Malays are envious of her good fortune is an absolute misrepresentation. As a Malay, I know that my race entertains no such resentment. The same goes, I am sure, for other Malaysians. We hold Singapore up as a role model worthy of emulation in many important areas of national life. I must admit, though, we find her approach to our concerns a trifle mercenary, legalistic and clinical. We believe a little human touch and love will not go amiss, and can soften the hardest of attitudes.

I am on record as being a great admirer of Lee Kuan Yew, the Minister Mentor. He has been, and continues to be, my inspiration in the fight against corruption, and for ethical private and public behaviour. The highest point of my life as an anti-corruption activist was when I succeeded, after months of exhaustive effort, in honouring Lee in Singapore on his 80th birthday by presenting Transparency International Malaysia’s International Integrity Medal.

I have spent the last 10 years telling the world how one man’s abiding aversion for corruption and everything to do with it has transformed a once corrupt colonial backwater into a much admired “Island of Integrity”. I mention this as a way of showing that many people I know well in every strata of Malay society honour Lee for his personal integrity and high ethical standards. Therefore, it is more in sorrow than anger that I touch on this subject in this column.

Singapore is not an unknown quantity to us in Malaysia. She is in a sense of us, but not part of us. The historical ties that are supposed to underpin our relations amount to nothing and to view them through rose-tinted spectacles would distort even further a relationship that has never been known for its convergence of views even on the most pedestrian of issues. Rather, it has all the makings and attributes of a potentially protracted and acrimonious future.

We cannot be continually distracted by having to put out one diplomatic, and not so diplomatic, fire after another. There are far better things to do in our country for the benefit of our people.

The late Tunku Abdul Rahman, with impe
ccable intuition, read the situation well when he decided that Malaysia had had enough of Singapore, incessantly and noisily barking and snapping at the heel.

In our dealings with Singapore, we cannot take her at face value. Let us disabuse ourselves quickly of the notion that sentiments and goodwill will cut any ice with her. We have to adopt an equally cold, clinical and legalistic approach, as they do. How often have we ended up drawing the short straw in our negotiations with Singapore? The most unforgettable was undoubtedly the MSA (Malaysia-Singapore Airline) divorce from which we came away with nothing to write home about.

Singapore has always made it clear that she has no time for sentimental nonsense, and operates simply on the basis of exacting the maximum advantage she can wangle out of any deal, no matter what.

Based on our past experience with her, and in order to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness, such as being accused of bullying a small neighbour and of other unfair and malevolent behaviour, we should, as far as possible, leave Singapore completely alone.

She is a neighbour too far, with apologies to A Bridge Too Far. It has become apparent that it is simply not worth the effort to cultivate this uncultivable neighbour. You cannot ever be right with her because she is never wrong. Winning some and losing some is not something that sits well with her. Winners take all is a strategy that appears to be well entrenched in Singapore’s national psyche.

Our relations with a neighbour such as Singapore, with her propensity for, and unseemly preoccupation with, scoring a debating point or two at every turn must be circumscribed by the most formal and correct behaviour. It is clear that while we cannot avoid living next door to each other, we should lead separate lives, taking nothing from Singapore that is not rightfully ours, and, in turn, give her nothing that is not due to her.

This policy of minimum engagement is the secret of peaceful accommodation. We should make our position entirely clear so that there is no misunderstanding of where we stand as a neighbour. We know where they stand, and we as a peaceful people must never be lulled into a false sense of security because Singapore has never tried to conceal its abiding faith in the doctrine of pre-emption in all her business dealings.

* The writer is a former president of Transparency International Malaysia and now special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General in the Ethics Office.

Technorati: Singapore, Malaysia, politics, bilateral relations, engagement, trade, kiasuism

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

One thought on “S’pore and M’sia will both lose if we adopt a "policy of minimum engagement"”

  1. First, I appreciate and thank the writer who has high regards for our country leaders and his love he tried best to give to us-our country, our people…and now my comments on his article….

    The writer, implicit or rather clearly stated in his comments on our country leaders that we have always taken advantage on his country,Malaysia. Well, I am no politician or businessman, however,in the process of negotiations for political policy making or agreement, there must be of interest gain to each party’s needs at that point of time. Thus, I wish the writer is aware by saying that hurts his country leaders’ integrity and wisdom of their leadship. Leaders of his country are elected by majority of his people, he must not doubts the leaders capability and rational state of mind.

    The writer has forgotten today, the wolrd is globalised. It is flat now. Everyone moves to anywhere for a living and thus he is quite not responsible for his words by simplying calling out leaving Singapore alone. There are so many of his friends travelling across the causeway or bridge everyday before dawn for a living. They have been quietly doing their part for their family and also for both countries, Malaysia and Singapore. I know many of these friends in servicing profession in Singapore. I understand their hardships and contributions to both countries and has high regards and respect for them. The writer ought to feel the same too.

    The only view I fully agree with the writer’s unhappy feeling of our showing lack of human touch and love to his country and including people. Friends,Malaysia friends sincerely enough to share this view to me too…our people making holidays in his country has not given them respect while in his country. Thoguh I have not been to the country for about 20 years, I still choose to believe this. On the other hand, I hope the writer, being an international man,in his international high profession understands that it is an image of personality ‘cultured’ throughs years. This personality developed cause our government has managed a livelihood environment that no one needs to bestow or humble oneself to anyone for a living. Thus, the lack of pleasant smiles and love for others. To put it bluntly, no one has ever got hungry for a living before. Unfortunately, time has changed. High time our people is aware our stereo-type attitudes, felt by foreigners as unpleasant, has got to improve, ie add smiles. Hope the writer understand this change cannot be overnight. As a Singaporean living overseas for decade, has felt this problem while at going home for few days occasionally – the reason I have believe in the feedback. I hope every Singaporean takes this feedback positively.

    Lastly, nothing on earth comes to a perfect match! Be it between countries, neighbours, or family members, respect each others weakness and do not start to attack…there is no end to it.

    I am a semi-retired 50 years old woman without tertiary education. Thus, could not write and express as much as the writer could but felt the need to point out his omitted sight in his views.

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