Former Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a rally organised by Bersih calling to stop a bill to redraw electoral boundaries near the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur on March 28, 2018. The Malaysian government on March 28 proposed redrawing constituency boundaries as polls loom, a move that sparked angry demonstrations and claims from the opposition of a "scandalous" attempt to steal the election. / AFP PHOTO / Mohd RASFAN
At first, I was all “wait and see”. Mahathir showed all the signs of a leader who could turn things around. I thought the axing of consumption tax was a good move. Show the electorate that you will fulfil promises but keep revenue coming in at the same time.
Calling for donations was also a good idea. Harness the spirit of nationalism, rally up people to action through voluntary contributions. It wasn’t so much the amount raised, but it was the energy that was important.
And now ego slowly begins to creep in. Little by little, we see him pursuing personal unfinished business, the business of showing Singapore who’s the bigger brother.
For those of us who are not old enough to remember the antics of our neighbour, let us take a walk down memory lane and reflect on the memorable moments Malaysia left with us under Mahathir’s leadership. This is important because it looks like these old matters will be raised again.
To cut a long story short, Singapore buys water from Malaysia for a low price. Some of this is sold back to Malaysia, at a higher price. This was put into contracts, to end in 2061.
It sounds like a silly tiff, but it isn’t.
If you are one of those who think the Singapore government is operating too “legalistically”, you are falling into the very trap they have set up for Singapore from day one.
It is not a matter of how much Singapore pays, or how much Singapore sells. It has to do with the manner that Malaysia wants the prices changed: and they want to do it as and when they wish.
And we’re not talking about just any product. We’re not talking about cars, or tin, or durians. This is water. The one commodity that could plunge Singapore into emergency if it was in shortage. We cannot allow them to raise or lower prices at their whim and fancy. Singapore’s not your bitch.
When Singapore separated from Malaysia, it was a complete and through severance and water was not going to be a leash that kept us tethered to them.
Do you think the Pedra Branca episode has come to a close? Maybe, maybe not. The manner in which Mahathir “ended” this leaves us much to wonder. But that’s the way their administration works. One minister says something, another one says something else. Undisciplined civil servants then make their own announcements.
A policy is raised, changed, raised, changed, repealed, revised, revoked and then revisited, again and again and again.
Another example of indecisive policy making is with petrol. Between the years of 2000 to, well even today… the Malaysian government had went from banning Singapore vehicles from consuming Malaysian petrol, to restricting Singaporean vehicles to more expensive fuel types. There was even an occasion when they barred our vehicles from purchasing within a certain range of the causeway.
I’m not even sure what the policy is anymore, and I suspect neither do the petrol companies.
Toll charge wars
Although not exactly a Mahathir idea (but who knows eh?) let us not forget just last year, we fought the toll-charge wars. Malaysia would increase the price it cost for Singapore cars to enter. However, Brunei (which borders West Malaysia) was not subject to these charges and Thailand pays a significantly lower rate.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, they relented. Probably because Malaysian vehicles were hit with charges that hurt them more than us.
(This was not an isolated action by the way, whilst the vehicle charge wars were waged, Indonesia banned and/or restricted SIA flights to Jarkata, citing airport upgrade as a reason. Strangely, other airlines have an ability to land but not SIA planes)
Replacing causeway with a bridge
This was Mahathir’s pet project. He wanted to replace the causeway with a bridge. According to him, it would allow stagnant water to flow and improve the marine environment…as well as allow ships to sail across the Johor Straits.
Let’s see – everything for Singapore to lose and nothing for us to gain. Little wonder why we never proceeded.
In a huff of egotistical retaliation, Malaysia actually proceeded to build the bridge that they wanted, on their side. Construction started, and then suddenly… -poof- they changed their mind. They then shifted their efforts to build the new checkpoint, to replace the old one.
In 2002, Malaysia lodged a protest against Singapore’s reclamation works around Pulaus Tekong and Ubin. They claimed that the works caused transboundary environmental harm and pursued us all the way to international arbitration. The matter was amicably resolved at The Hague under new Malaysian leadership, but it is important to note the words of academics at the time: that they were not certain that the land reclamation case would have been settled amicably if Dr. Mahathir was still the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Oh by the way, do you remember when the words “transboundary environmental harm” was used? That’s right – the regular haze that visits our region from Indonesia. Do you see Malaysia taking the Indons to arbitration? Nope.
Let us not forget the flippant threats of violence. In 2003, then PM Mahathir, in a New Year’s Day Message warned that they would not hesitate to give a “bloody nose” to any country that violated its sovereignty.
This came after by Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid said that Singapore had only two choices in the Pedra Branca dispute – compromise or go to war.
Military airspace restriction
Under the Mahathir leadership, Malaysia has closed off its military airspace to Singapore. But instead of becoming bitter, we became better. Check out this excerpt from an RSAF pilot on how the unique training we have to undertake:
Whenever Tan Kah Han, a lieutenant colonel in the Singapore Air Force, takes off to the north for training in his F-16C jet fighter, he faces an immediate problem: Climbing at 540 kilometers per hour, he has barely 45 seconds to avoid crossing the border with Malaysia, less than three kilometers away.
Taking off to the south from their base at Tengah is not much easier for Colonel Tan and other pilots of F-16s, Singapore’s most advanced combat aircraft. In no more than two minutes, they must turn into a narrow corridor that takes them to one of only two relatively extensive training areas available to Southeast Asia’s largest and most potent air force.”
Because of our “friendly neighbours”, we have become better pilots in a crowded local airspace.
In 1991, Malaysia and Indonesia staged a parachute drop just 20km from Woodlands. It was a joint military exercise codenamed “Pukul Habis” and in case you don’t speak Malay, it means “total wipeout”.
Go on, have a think about what the countries of Malaysia and Indonesia can totally wipeout.
Leaving nothing to imagination, they held the exercise on the day of Singapore’s 26th National Day celebrations and when Lee Kuan Yew just handed the leadership over to Goh Chok Tong.
Singapore responded by triggering a massive open mobilisation and recalled thousands of troops. NSmen were called back, live ammo and weapons were distributed. Armour and artillery assets were deployed.
Some were mobilised to sit along the edges of the Malaysian railway in Tanjong Pagar with live ammo. Soldiers were also deployed to plant live mines around Singapore.
“We can skin a cat in many ways. To skin Singapore, there is not just one method”, said the nice Prime Minister. Over his previous leadership, he had certainly demonstrated this in the many ways listed above.
Under his new leadership, it looks as if he is heading this way again. These childish jibes take effort to respond to. Sometimes these exchanges have real repercussions, like the toll-charge wars, both sides bleed. Sometimes muscle flexing can become dangerous, such as how the Pukul Habis exercise triggered a military response.
For us Singaporeans, let us not be distracted.
We have tolerated these antics for decades and we will continue to do so through diplomacy and the rule of law. We have had a track record of defending our ground each time a new threat against our sovereignty arises.
We need not be cowered into a corner just because these are big nations. Remember the China-Terrex incident? Some online commentators thought we should kowtow and let the Chinese have their way, a good thing we didn’t do that. We held our ground and today China is friendlier to us.
Abiding strictly by the rule of law has paid off for us time and again.
Had we given way to the Malaysians, the Chinese and the Indonesians, what are we telling the world? That we’re a football that they can kick around whenever they please? If we allow them even just once to do this, we’ll end up having a diplomatic crisis like that of Qatar.
What we can do now, is take a leaf from the RSAF pilot’s book. No need to be bitter, let’s become better.
Go on – shut our airspace and we’ll respond by becoming the best pilots in the world.