Across the causeway - T. Shiraishi (ed)
TAKASHI SHIRAISHI (ed.)
Across the causeway: a multi-dimensional study of Malaysia-Singapore relations
Singapore: ISEAS, 2009.
276 pp. ISBN: 978-981-230-783-5, pb US$29.90
Reviewed by Nicholas White, Liverpool John Moores University
In 2001, Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, commended Malaysia’s then Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, for the latter’s analogy of Singapore and Malaysia as ‘two neighbours living in semi-detached houses, separated by a common wall. What happens to one house will affect the other house’. Yet, as recent disputes between Malaysia and Singapore over water supply, Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, maritime boundaries, customs facilities, land ownership and reclamation, and pension rights demonstrate, these neighbours living in close proximity can often have strained relations. This interdisciplinary study of Malaysia-Singapore interactions – encompassing history, politics, security, law and economics – is most welcome therefore. There is much repetition between chapters and proof reading leaves a little to be desired, but the volume represents the most comprehensive study of Malaysia-Singapore relations to date, and will prove a vital work of reference for any future studies.
The historical section of the book begins with Tony Stockwell’s discussion of the British late-colonial legacy. From wartime planning for reoccupation in 1942 to the achievement of Malaysia (with Singapore included) in 1963, Stockwell shows that the British were ‘equivocal and circumspect’ (p. 12) in their approaches to merger. The exclusion of Singapore from the Malayan Union of 1946, and the Federation of Malaya which succeeded it in 1948, only served to push the two territories further apart, especially as Malay political dominance on the mainland and Chinese political dominance on the island were increasingly confirmed during the 1950s. Ooi Keat Gin takes up the historical legacies further, arguing that the economic symbiosis between Malaysia and Singapore – epitomised by tin mining and smelting from the mid 19th century – was overshadowed by political divides. He concludes that ‘owing to the different approaches of the political leadership in Singapore and Malaysia towards the handling of the contentious issues of communal relations and egalitarian versus positive discrimination, it appears that any attempt at a re-merger must first resolve these differences, if not, the tensions of 1963-5 shall again re-emerge’ (p. 48).
Indeed, the origins of the Malaysia-Singapore split of 1965 are examined in more detail by Mohamad Abu Bakar in his chapter focusing on the 1961-63 period. For him, the point of no return came in August 1962 when, after winning the referendum campaign for merger, Lee Kuan Yew began inferring that the People’s Action Party (PAP) would spread its electoral web to the mainland, threatening the existence of the Malayan Chinese Association and the delicate conservative communal balance of Federation politics tipped in favour of the Malay electorate. In other words, it was Lee’s ambitions for power on a pan-Malaysian and not merely Singaporean stage which brought the ‘Greater Malaysia’ scheme down. Albert Lau, meanwhile, reminds us of Singapore-Kuala Lumpur tensions extending further back to the creation of the Federated Malay States in the 1890s and the efforts at decentralisation as a prelude to recentralisation in the inter-war years. But the principal problem of the 1963-65 period for Lau, in contrast to Mohamad Abu Bakar, lay in Kuala Lumpur ‘never seriously depart[ing] from its perception of Malaysia as simply an extension of the Old Malaya where political power was rested in a communally-aligned Alliance-led government headed by UMNO, with Malays in charge and given special privileges’ (p. 104).
Carlyle Thayer’s chapter on political relations provides a useful bridge between the history and political science parts of the book by recognising that ‘current relations between Singapore and Malaysia were significantly shaped by the legacy of merger and separation’ (p. 81). The ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ vision of Lee Kuan Yew versus the ‘Malay Malaysia’ conception of Tunku Abdul Rahman continues to underlay tensions between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, as does the island republic’s ongoing ‘sense of geo-strategic vulnerability in a region prone to religious extremism and political violence’ (p. 89). Kamarulnizam Abdullah then moves on to explore the ambiguous relationship of Johor with Singapore – he reminds us that some 80,000 Malaysians commute to work in Singapore daily. At the same time, however, Johor is the heartland of Malay nationalism, and has been frustrated by the Malaysia-Singapore water agreements, Singapore’s land reclamation schemes, noise pollution from the Singapore air force, and competition between Tanjung Pelepas and the Port of Singapore. N. Ganesan’s chapter on politics and international relations from the Singapore perspective demonstrates the thawing of relations between Malaysia and Singapore after 1967 through the creation of ASEAN and regime change in Indonesia, as well as the threat posed to both countries by communist victories in Indo-China. However, ‘the end of the Cold War in Southeast Asia in the 1990s has removed the structural convergence of threat perceptions, and reignited tensions’ (p. 149).
On legal questions, Abdul Aziz Bari’s chapter is particularly insightful on the constitutional legacies of the Singapore separation for Malaysia. As he points out, the Sarawak political crisis in 1966 did not result in separation because the central government proved ‘more high handed this time around’ (p. 160) in opting for the declaration of an Emergency. Indeed, after the Singapore split there was an increasingly authoritarian bent in Kuala Lumpur, particularly in its dealings with recalcitrant states such as Kelantan and Sabah, as well as Sarawak. In terms of ‘checks and balances’, meanwhile, the decision to expel Singapore in 1965 set the precedent of non-consultation of the Conference of Rulers on key constitutional issues.
Thayer’s second chapter in the volume begins the section on security. He outlines the increasing separation of Malaysia’s and Singapore’s armed forces after 1965, and how bilateral defence cooperation has proved ‘superficial and trouble-prone, reflecting the continuing deep distrust between the two governments and defence establishments’ (p. 170). Only through the Five Power Defence Arrangements after 1971 – involving Australia, New Zealand and the UK as well as Malaysia and Singapore – have common defence exercises taken place, given that this provides a ‘neutral forum for defence cooperation’ (p. 172). Ganesan’s chapter on Singapore and regional security underscores this sense of unease: ‘Singapore’s defence initiatives, especially at the local level, are deeply informed by an acute sense of vulnerability’ (p. 176). Defence expenditure has recently represented up to 28 % of the island’s annual public expenditure. On the other hand, Kamarulnizam Abdullah’s second contribution stresses how close cooperation, particularly in intelligence, has recently eventuated in managing the threat of regional Muslim radicalism/terrorism. Yet, at the same time, Malaysia has remained wary of Singapore’s ‘special relationship’ with Washington and the republic’s encouragement of a US naval presence in the Straits to combat terrorism and piracy.
Teofilo Daquila’s chapter on competition and complementarity opens the economics section of the book. Despite high levels of competition for export markets and foreign investment, Singapore’s penchant for bilateral free trade agreements and higher average incomes and levels of social development in Singapore, Daquila finds significant trade interdependence. He also emphasises Malaysia-Singapore economic cooperation in the Singapore-Johor-Riau growth triangle, and the future prospects of the Iskander Development Region (IDR) in south Johor. Similar conclusions are reached by Mahani Zainal Abidin: in 2001, Singapore was Malaysia’s second largest export destination, and third largest source of imports; since 2000, Malaysia has been Singapore’s leading trading partner. Moreover, the IDR represents a chance for the ‘private sector and people’ to ‘respond to the new signal if barriers to free movement of workers, goods and services are removed’ (p. 247). This appeal is repeated by Linda Low and Lee Poh Onn in the final chapter which focuses upon the ‘tedious and drawn out’ (p. 257) negotiations over the supply of Malaysian water for Singapore: ‘As both Malaysia and Singapore claim to be pragmatic and flexible, they should see a way through to marginalize the histrionics of history, personality, and politics’ (p. 262). If only life was so simple.