Malaysia-Sin­ga­pore ties look­ing up

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP -

I’M glad to be back after miss­ing the dead­lines for this col­umn for a cou­ple of weeks as I have been do­ing some hec­tic trav­el­ling in the last month or so. was in Ankara and Is­tan­bul in Tur­key, on an in­vi­ta­tion from the Turk­ish Em­bassy in Kuala Lumpur, for a week where of­fi­cials gave brief­ings on what ac­tu­ally hap­pened be­fore and after the coun­try’s July 15 failed mil­i­tary coup.

Tur­key has ex­pe­ri­enced such a coup at a rate of once ev­ery 10 years in the last few decades with the mil­i­tary tak­ing over power but this time around, the sheer power of mil­lions who poured into the streets crushed the at­tempt.

Of­fi­cials said had the coup suc­ceeded, Tur­key would have ended up as an­other Syria.

After Tur­key I was in Mar­rakech, Morocco, with the Malaysian del­e­ga­tion for the United Na­tions Con­fer­ence on Cli­mate Change, which saw the big­gest gath­er­ing of over 190 coun­tries to un­der­score how se­ri­ous the world is in tack­ling the threat of global warm­ing.

And on Mon­day, I was nearer to home in Sin­ga­pore for an ex­clu­sive interview with Sin­ga­pore Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong.

I have in­ter­viewed a count­less num­ber of lead­ers and other per­son­al­i­ties in my long ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist but this lat­est one cer­tainly left a last­ing im­pres­sion.

As far as I know, it’s the first time that a Malaysian jour­nal­ist has in­ter­viewed any prime min­is­ter of Sin­ga­pore, our clos­est neigh­bour, which was once part of Malaysia, but since its sep­a­ra­tion in 1965 it has left all coun­tries in South­east Asia and be­yond be­hind to take its place as a first world na­tion.

Sin­ga­pore’s progress and trans­for­ma­tion over the past few decades is noth­ing short of amaz­ing with its sym­bol of pride be­ing its world-class ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and sta­tus as an al­most cor­rupt-free na­tion.

There is some­thing spe­cial about Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, which per­haps does not hap­pen any­where else in the world. Both Lee and our Prime Min­is­ter Datuk Seri Na­jib Ab­dul Razak are sons of con­tem­po­rary prime min­is­ters of both coun­tries at one time in the past.

This is a unique back­drop, which forms the ba­sis for why our bi­lat­eral ties with Sin­ga­pore un­der Lee and Na­jib are on their best ever foot­ing in re­cent his­tory.

For the record, re­la­tions were very testy as well as rocky es­pe­cially dur­ing the 22 years of Tun Dr Ma­hathir Mo­hamad’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which in hind­sight, to me as a keen ob­server, sim­ply boiled down to the fact that Ma­hathir had not once given Sin­ga­pore credit for any­thing, let alone its suc­cess story.

Both he and Sin­ga­pore found­ing prime min­is­ter, Lee Kuan Yew, had been quite tough on each other too, and this was due to their long his­tory of per­son­al­ity clashes in Malaysian pol­i­tics dat­ing back to the time of Sin­ga­pore’s brief two years as part of Malaysia from 1963.

“It’s a point in com­mon that we share and some­times we swap notes of what it was like to be the chil­dren of for­mer prime min­is­ters. It is a pos­i­tive fac­tor be­cause it means that both of us have had en­vi­ron­ments where we have been fo­cused on this bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship for a very large part of our lives. We know how im­por­tant it is and we would like to make it bet­ter, which I think we are not do­ing badly,” Lee told me on Mon­day.

Th­ese re­marks truly re­flect Lee’s hu­mil­ity. In fact it’s an un­der­state­ment I would say, for the tremen­dous strides that both he and Na­jib have scored since tak­ing over the helm of gov­ern­ment.

The ele­phant in the room right now as far as both coun­tries are con­cerned is the High Speed Rail (HSR) link­ing Kuala Lumpur and Sin­ga­pore that has been pre­oc­cu­py­ing lead­ers and of­fi­cials on both sides for more than a year now.

And Lee took the op­por­tu­nity of my interview to re­it­er­ate how im­por­tant it is to strike a “sound agree­ment” on how the HSR is struc­tured, ex­e­cuted and backed by both gov­ern­ments.

The project, as he puts it, is “very am­bi­tious, very com­pli­cated and very ex­pan­sive” and cost-shar­ing of its con­struc­tion is one of the things that makes it com­pli­cated just like the Lon­don to Paris Chan­nel Tun­nel”.

He ad­mit­ted that one “very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion” pend­ing would be on eval­u­at­ing which of the bid­ders for its con­struc­tion; among Ja­panese, Korean and Chi­nese high­speed rail sys­tems, would be the best over­all and would get this big­gest-in-his­tory project.

After the 30-minute interview was over, I gave the prime min­is­ter a copy of a book that was given to me in Penang just two days ear­lier by Tan Sri Yus­sof Lat­iff, chair­man of the Penang Good­will Con­sul­ta­tive Coun­cil.

It’s a col­lec­tion of fond re­mem­brances of our first prime min­is­ter, Tunku Ab­dul Rah­man, by close friends that in­cluded Bri­tish ex­pa­tri­ates who once served in pre-in­de­pen­dent Malaya.

One of them, who later be­came Lord Og­more, wrote that Tunku, whom he said was a good cook, once cooked curry rice for some Bri­tish min­is­ters at Og­more’s house in Lon­don while he and Lee Kuan Yew were there for talks on the for­ma­tion of Malaysia with Bri­tish of­fi­cials.

Lee acted as Tunku’s as­sis­tant cook and both were wear­ing aprons and Og­more wrote that the then Sin­ga­pore prime min­is­ter’s task was chop­ping onions and pre­par­ing the condi­ments for the curry dish.

Lee Hsien Loong read that par­tic­u­lar para­graph in the book and with a tinge of emo­tion told me: “Thank you very much for this heart-warm­ing story of my dad.”

It was very touch­ing of the Sin­ga­pore prime min­is­ter to have men­tioned my interview with him on his Face­book and Twit­ter on Wed­nes­day as well as post­ing the en­tire tran­script of the interview.

The prime min­is­ter’s of­fice also re­leased the full tran­script of the interview to the Sin­ga­pore me­dia.

Thank you, prime min­is­ter.

Com­ments: let­ters@the­sundaily.com

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