Malaysiakini Letter

Spore - a nation of shopkeepers

Gerard Lourdesamy  |  Published:  |  Modified:

It is about time that the Malaysia-Singapore relationship is put in perspective. The ongoing dispute over the price revision for the supply of water to the island state is becoming a bane in relations between both countries.

It is unfortunate that this crucial issue was taken out of the package of unresolved issues such as overlapping territorial claims, the CPF monies, the Tanjung Pagar KTM station and related land matters, use of Malaysian air-space by the Singapore air force, the Woodlands CIQ (customs, immigration and quarantine) controversy and the recent land reclamation works in the Tebrau Straits.

It is remarkable that two relatively small countries, and neighbours at that, can have so many outstanding bilateral issues, some going back to the separation in 1965. Both countries should take stock and make a concerted effort to move forward. A pragmatic approach should to be taken in resolving these matters.

Firstly, the baggage from the separation should be confined to the dustbin of history. Both Malaysian and Singaporean leaders should stop using each other as scapegoats in order to placate domestic dissent. What has happened has happened, let us just leave it at that.

Secondly, the simmering tensions arising from a need to outdo each other in the conduct of economic, foreign, social and cultural policies should stop. Each country has its own set of problems and weaknesses, each should therefore be allowed to tailor solutions to deal with them as they see fit.

The press on both sides should exercise some restraint. I have always wondered why the media in Singapore, notably The Straits Times, has to devote two or three pages of news each day to Malaysia, most of them based on negative reporting, and a desire to highlight everything that is wrong or bad about Malaysia.

I don't see the Singapore media showing as much interest in Indonesian affairs, after all the country is also an immediate neighbour. I strongly suspect a hidden agenda, namely to put fear into Singaporeans that they should not take things for granted and that indeed the grass is greener on their side.

It is an unfortunate way to instil patriotism and national awareness. Besides, people on both sides of the causeway are happy with the way things are.

I doubt many Malaysians and Singaporeans are even remotely interested in any sort of reunification, or any loose form of confederation or economic union between both countries. We have gone our separate ways both in terms of social engineering, political, economic and cultural development.

Thirdly, the unhealthy competition between both countries in trade and economic relations should be reined in. Instead both nations should explore ways to exploit their unique relationship.

In this regard there should be synergy and symbiosis in the economic sphere between both nations rather than using overt and covert methods to undermine the trade and economic relationship both bilaterally and multilaterally for narrow national interests.

Fourthly, negotiations can only be conducted if both sides are serious in their desire to find solutions to problems in their bilateral relations. Its pointless to use these occasions for sparring matches edged on by the media on both sides just to prove who is right and wrong.

The Malaysian government's position is correct on the two water agreements. While we are not going to breach the agreements by stopping the supply of raw water to Singapore, we are right in calling for a review of the price.

It is absurd for us to continue to sell raw water to Singapore based on a price fixed in 1927 and not revised in subsequent agreements, thanks to a British bias in favour of Singapore.

Just because the price revision mechanism in the agreements were not resorted to by Malaysia in 1986 and 1987, it does not mean that we have now lose our right to do so.

However, since Singapore is relying on this argument to deprive us of the right to seek a price revision, we should alternatively argue that Singapore's position is untenable because both its former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and current Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in letters and discussions with the Malaysian leadership raised the issue of a price revision and the formula for calculating the new price.

While no agreement was reached, the fact that discussions took place undermines the Singapore position of insisting its legal rights under the agreements. Singapore, by its own previous conduct, has waived its right to rely on a strict interpretation of the price revision and cannot deny Malaysia's right to have the price revised.

If the Singapore position was carved in stone, it does not make sense that after 1987, its leaders raised the issue of a possible price revision on many occasions in order to placate Malaysian concerns over the very low price that was being paid and also to ensure the future supply of raw water to Singapore after both agreements expire.

Therefore, it is disgraceful that Singapore is now trying to extricate itself from this issue by claiming that it is blameless while Malaysia keeps changing the goal posts, so to speak. Singapore should be told in no uncertain terms that it cannot approbate and reprobate at the same time.

Here is a country that is decidedly of first world status but with a third world mentality. It refuses to pay its neighbour a fair and reasonable price for a resource that it desperately needs for its own survival.

The British were right when they negotiated the water agreements between the state of Johor and Singapore, with the hindsight that Singapore could not possibly have any of the attributes of statehood without such a precious and crucial commodity like water. Alas, they were too generous to the Singapore side given their own vested interests in the matter.

We have been tolerating this injustice for far too long and one gets the impression that Singapore is taking advantage of the situation. For a country that is sitting on more than US$85 billion in reserves, what is there in paying Malaysia 60 sen or 45 sen for the supply of raw water?

However, statements from the Singapore side argue it's the principle that counts and not the money. How very rich coming from a country whose survival is based on our generosity in sharing with them our water resources despite our own growing needs.

Like everything with Singapore, this issue has been linked to a matter of sovereignty. If Singapore gives in to Malaysia's demands, it will be perceived as being compliant and subservient to Malaysia - something that is totally unpalatable to the Singapore leadership.

The assumption being that there is absolutely no merit in the Malaysian case whatsoever. The truth lies somewhere in between. The question remains as to how this issue is to be resolved. If both parties insist on legal rights then it is best to have the matter resolved by arbitration as provided for in the agreements.

If a holistic approach is taken, this issue should not be de-coupled from the other outstanding bilateral issues and it should be resolved as a package in an open and pragmatic manner by both sides.

But if Singapore is bent on buying time, Malaysia should then make its stand clear. We will not discuss any of the outstanding issues with Singapore unless and until the Singapore side shows some sincerity in wanting to improve relations.

In the longer run, it is worse for Singapore to have a larger neighbour who decides to become uncooperative and difficult. The lack of faith shown by Singapore thus far is astounding.

It conducts foreign relations with another sovereign state through the media. It discloses private correspondences and state papers to the public merely to exonerate itself from public criticisms (if any) and to justify its position to is people and it directly or indirectly advocates an aggressive posture towards Malaysia, probably with the knowledge that the United States will come to is rescue in the event of hostilities.

It is foolish to talk of war for the simple reason that both sides will never recover from one and there isn't going to be a clear-cut winner or loser. Sadly, this talk of war is a reflection of the poor state of bilateral relations despite strong economic and people-to-people ties.

Singapore should consider its long-term interests in this matter and its position in the region vis-a-vis its neighbours. While a strong Singaporean dollar is welcomed, not many in the region are too fond of its leaders, people and policies. Arrogance, conceit and avarice have become virtues in the city-state that prides itself in meritocracy, competition and orderliness.

The human costs are too great, and if the Singapore leadership fails to realise this, then it is a future prescription for disaster. The very viability of this state is in doubt, despite its prosperity and superficially constructed sense of patriotism and national awareness.

I doubt any Singaporean is prepared to give up his life or freedom for any great cause unless he or she is well rewarded first. The entire nation it seems to quote the words of Napolean: thinks and works like a nation of shopkeepers, where people only live for the sake of having a comfortable and secure existence without any passion for life itself.

Thankfully, Malaysia despite its warts and all, has a more assured future given that its people are its biggest asset. We may be Singapore's poor cousin but we know how to live and enjoy life to the fullest.

In conclusion, if Singapore wants to conduct foreign relations predicated on the famous saying by Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, the Austrian prime minister at the start of the Crimean War, "that we will shock them by our ingratitude", it will soon be left with very few friends.

Eventually, the day will come when a Singapore leader will have to make a fateful journey to Kuala Lumpur, like the proverbial journey to Canossa, wherein the supplicant may be told the unpalatable about his country's very existence and its future without a magnanimous and forgiving Malaysia.

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