Malaysia-Singapore ties looking 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.