MALAYSIA-Singapore bilateral relations, based on the principles of equal partnership and prosper thy neighbour, have always been positive and amicable; although experiencing choppy waters at times.
The determinants, however, change in accordance with the leadership image and strategic culture of the individual prime minister, the relative material power of the state and the dynamics of its intervening actors at the domestic front.
Singapore-Malaysia relations are also presumed to be on similar principles and determinants because of the dictum of neoclassical realism — a theory of foreign policy that posits “domestic factors as intervening variables or ‘transmission belts’ converting systemic pressures into choices”.
This dictum is among the primary reasons why various Malaysian prime ministers had acted differently over a similar issue concerning Singapore, which took place at different administrative periods. Similarly, it is among the main reasons why various Singaporean prime ministers, too, had not acted in uniformity over a similar issue concerning Malaysia.
This article, however, focuses only on several experiences to illustrate the variance in Malaysia’s bilateral relations and foreign policy content, orientation and behaviour towards Singapore.
First, the administration of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad between 1981 and 2003 had intended to resolve the issue of raw water sale to Singapore, based on factors and reasons existing during the time of his leadership.
This issue was put aside by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration (2003-2009), also based on reasons and logics existing during his era, although it resulted in severe criticisms of his leadership.
Second, in 2001, the Mahathir administration had planned the construction of a scenic (crooked) bridge to replace the Causeway linking Johor Baru with Singapore.
This was “to ease traffic congestion, allow stagnant water to flow and improve the marine environment, as well as allow ships to sail across the Johor Straits,
which would be a major boost for Johor’s two ports”.
This plan was aborted by the Abdullah’s administration in 2006, purportedly due to “public concerns over the sale of sand to and use of airspace by Singapore”.
Although the above reasons were widely contested, its cancellation was finalised due to the influence of Abdullah’s leadership image and his administration’s strategic culture.
Third, it is not a “vengeance” against Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration, when Dr Mahathir’s current government decided to review and postpone the implementation of the Singapore-Malaysia High-Speed Rail project.
It is Dr Mahathir’s leadership image and his government’s strategic culture which contributed to this decision, particularly influenced by the country’s grievous financial constraint.
The above show that Malaysia-Singapore relations, as well as its policy orientation, content and behaviour — and vice-versa — are determined by driving forces existing at both sides of the Causeway.
These include the perceptions of both states’ top ruling elites, the influence of their nonstate actors, the leadership image of their prime ministers and the strategic culture of their administrations.
Hence, it is absolutely appropriate for Dr Mahathir’s administration to revisit the scenic bridge project, especially since it has already “agreed to the idea if the Johor government is keen on reviving the project”.
This is an interesting case study because the current move seems to be motivated by factors related to the frustration of most Johoreans when the project was cancelled in 2006.
Reviving the crooked bridge project could also be to totally erode the credibility of Barisan Nasional for its alleged refusal in implementing it. This could be true because the cancellation of this bridge, to most Johoreans, symbolised the so-called “flipflop” decision of the Abdullah administration and his immediate successor.
However, would the move be bilaterally compliance and involving new strategies in the context of its builders and financing?
Equally puzzling, what would be the perception of current Singapore’s top political elites towards this endeavour and what would be the reactions of its non-state actors?
Additionally, would Singapore turn this development into a diplomatic conduit channelling other pending bilateral issues mooted during Dr Mahathir’s earlier administration?
Singapore was said to have used the previous project as “part of a package including other bilateral issues, which could include the use of Malaysian airspace by the Republic of Singapore Air Force, the purchase of sand and raw water from Malaysia”.
But whether this bridge project is going to be an immediate reality or otherwise, it is a pertinent reminder to both Malaysia and Singapore that the success of their bilateral relations has to be calculated not only on its physical and monetary benefits, but also on its abstract and perpetual political gains.
Confrontation is not the preferred rule of the game because inter-state dependencies, like between Malaysia and Singapore, will not work on such a politically-driven approach.
Hence, although Malaysia-Singapore’s bilateral relations and foreign policy are realist-centric, both states also have to adopt the neoclassical realist’s dictum, which provides explanations on the variance of contents, orientation and behaviour.
Ruhanie Ahmad is a former member of parliament for Parit Sulong in Johor (1990-2004)