FEB 21 — Imagine departing Singapore to arrive in the heart of Kuala Lumpur in 90 minutes. Announced on Tuesday at the conclusion of the biennial Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat, the agreement to build a high-speed rail (HSR) link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore marks a milestone in bilateral relations. Prime Ministers Lee Hsien Loong and Datuk Seri Najib Razak were effusive in describing the project as a “game changer”.
Improved connectivity will boost business and people-to-people ties. Tourism will benefit. We can expect closer economic ties facilitated by a renewed political will to deepen the relationship between the two countries.
But in many ways, the HSR link is not the main story; the progress of ties is. The HSR project is a manifestation of the imperative for Singapore and Malaysia to collaborate closely, leveraging on each other’s complementarities and strengths.
I see the HSR link as a long-overdue signature project between Singapore and Malaysia. The agreement is one that moves concretely towards a “prosper thy neighbour” policy, in which both countries co-invest in each other’s success and future.
As Lee put it, the HSR link “will transform the way people interact, the intensity of our cooperation and the degree to which we become interdependent on one another and, therefore, have stakes in each other’s success”.
HOW WE SEE EACH OTHER
The positives surrounding the HSR link should not be understated. The push for seamless travel is important to a perceptual shift in how both countries, their governments and people look at each other. It reinforces the symbiotic relationship.
Increasingly, investors and businesses are investing in economic clusters, not countries. Singapore and Iskandar can be twinned economic entities. Indeed, Singapore and Malaysia are putting resources into this endeavour.
For example, Temasek Holdings is collaborating with Malaysia’s Khazanah Nasional Berhad through M+S Pte Ltd in Singapore, and through Pulau Indah Ventures Sdn Bhd in Iskandar.
M+S Pte Ltd is developing Marina One in Marina South and the DUO project in Ophir-Rochor. Pulau Indah Ventures Sdn Bhd is developing a 5-acre “Urban Wellness” project in Medini North, and 210-acre “Resort Wellness” development in Medini Central, both in Iskandar. Closer collaboration has been facilitated by the Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia.
There may be a temptation to question the progressive warming of bilateral ties over the last five years, in light of the regular ups and downs in bilateral ties since Singapore seceded from Malaysia in 1965. Such cynicism should be resisted.
In June 2011, the Agreement to Implement the Points of Agreement (POA) on Malayan Railway land in Singapore was signed in Putrajaya and implemented on July 1, 2011, almost 21 years to the signing of the POA by Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The resolution of this long-standing albatross around the neck of bilateral relations has paved the way for both countries to explore new areas of co-operation.
For instance, 17 years after Singapore last participated in the Malaysia Cup, the Lions returned to the Malaysian football league.
In turn, Harimau Muda is taking part in Singapore’s multinational S-League. Such people-to-people ties are just as important as government-to-government ties.
ISKANDAR AND WATER
The text of the growing bilateral ties has two sub-plots. The first is economic: The benefits that come from closer economic co-operation between neighbours.
Malaysia eagerly wants Iskandar to succeed in light of declining revenues from traditional income streams.
And given our very limited land supply and rising business costs, Malaysia, in particular the Iskandar special economic zone, can operate as Singapore’s de facto hinterland.
Might such closer economic co-operation serve as a precursor to economic integration, as envisaged when Singapore and Malaysia merged in September 1963?
The renewed thrust for closer economic ties may also be the impetus to refresh the SIJORI (Singapore-Johor-Riau) Growth Triangle concept which was never quite took off in the mid 1990s.
The second and more important plot is Singapore’s reduced dependence on Malaysia for water. This may be in part why water supply is far less of a political hot potato today, notwithstanding that we are still some way off from complete self-sufficiency.
Water supply from Malaysia was provided for under two water agreements expiring in 2011 and 2061.
Over the last four decades, Singapore’s government has taken steps to increase the local water catchment area, develop non-conventional sources of water supply (NEWater) and work on the viability of desalination.
In tandem with warming ties, Singapore, on the expiry of the 1961 Water Agreement in August 2011, handed over — free of charge and in good working order — to the state of Johor the Skudai and Gunung Pulai water treatment plants, which were built and managed by PUB for 50 years; as well as two pumphouses in Pontian and Tebrau.
Ideally, the HSR link would have a knock-on effect in engendering confidence and momentum in bilateral ties. In the meantime, with the HSR in the making, both governments should work resolutely on other existing plans, such as the Rapid Transit System (RTS) link between Singapore and Johor Baru, targeted to be operational by 2018.
In tandem, progress could be made on a dual co-located Customs, Immigration and Quarantine system to complement the RTS link. The possibility of establishing ferry and water taxi services as another means of transportation between the two neighbours could also be explored.
To be sure, we cannot expect ties to be perpetually smooth-sailing, although it is important to maintain an even keel.
Will the initiatives to take bilateral relations to new heights be hobbled by the vicissitudes of Malaysia’s domestic politics and pressures?
There is a tendency of Malaysian politicians of all stripes, sometimes out of reflex but often strategically calculated, to use Singapore as an easy whipping-boy to distract popular attention from domestic political problems and/or to earn short-term populist support.
In this regard, people-to-people ties help to prevent the political histrionics from undermining political ties.
The challenge remains, nonetheless, of ensuring that there is deep political will on both sides of the Causeway to stay focused on the long-term and to avoid politicking for short-term gains.
Investors and business people are sensitive to signals from governments. As such, leadership is a sine qua non for sustainable relations.
For the benefit of both countries, the HSR link — when it comes to fruition — can catalyse the removal of perceptual obstacles to closer economic and political ties, while building confidence and trust. — Today
* Eugene K.B. Tan is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He is also a Nominated Member of Parliament.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.