Hsien Loong’s turn to deal with Dr M
Like his father before him, the Singapore premier will meet with Malaysia’s newly minted Prime Minister to discuss bilateral relations, but it will be a different dynamic at play.
AT the last Singapore-Malaysia leaders retreat in January, Lee Hsien Loong was asked how the two governments would ensure that projects like the High Speed Rail (HSR), which are long term, would not be affected by political changes in Malaysia.
The Singapore leader, having just witnessed the signing of the Rapid Transit System rail project between Singapore and Johor Baru, gave a long reply about it being a binding agreement and long-term commitment.
“The commitment is formalised and the agreement is binding and whoever is the government on either side, well, this is an agreement which they inherit and are party to.
“If the subsequent government has other ideas, well, that would have to be dealt with and the agreement will deal with these contingencies. But I have no doubt that on Singapore’s side, we have every intention of implementing what we have signed and committed to today,” he said.
Last Thursday, as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as Prime Minister, a post was uploaded within minutes to Hsien Loong’s Facebook page congratulating his new counterpart and expressing his intention to meet Dr Mahathir soon.
Hsien Loong’s intention was quickly followed up with a request to Wisma Putra, which in turned conveyed the message to the Prime Minister’s Office.
It is understood that Hsien Loong is bringing along a delegation, including his foreign minister, for a meeting with Dr Mahathir in Putrajaya tomorrow.
Many observers see this as a sign that Hsien Loong is concerned with the fate of some of the projects undertaken with the previous government as Dr Mahathir, in previous interviews, had questioned if Malaysia needed projects like the HSR.
Since he took office, Dr Mahathir was asked several times about massive projects undertaken by the previous administration and his reply was that the Pakatan Harapan government would see how they favour Malaysia.
The HSR linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore is estimated to cost RM60bil although no figures have been confirmed. The rail link is supposed to be up by 2026.
It will be an interesting meeting between Hsien Loong and Dr Mahathir.
Bilateral relations, often described as prickly when Dr Mahathir was Prime Minister, have evolved since he left in 2003.
Dr Mahathir had a worthy sparring partner in the late Lee Kuan Yew, arguing on matters such as water supply from Johor. And who could forget Kuan Yew’s description of Johor as a place “notorious for muggings, shootings and car-jackings”?
Admittedly, there was a lot of baggage, but the relatively “younger” leaders of Malaysia and Singapore have moved on.
The contentious 1990 Points of Agreement dealing with Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd land across the republic made a breakthrough, including an exchange of three parcels of KTMB land to be jointly developed by Khazanah Nasional and Temasek Holdings.
Some of the projects undertaken by the two sovereign funds have been completed such as the Marina One and Duo projects in Singapore, touted as symbolising the good friendship.
Perhaps Dr Mahathir, too, has moved on. At least politically, he has taken a much more open and consultative mode within Pakatan. So, will he do the same with Singapore? Singapore has been consistent in conducting its relations with Malaysia. The Singapore way of doing things is very legalistic and with a calculative approach.
With Dr Mahathir publicly criticising some projects undertaken with the island republic, Singapore being Singapore wants to get to the bottom of it.
“I am sure this visit is to validate some of the information they picked up from the media, and since Hsien Loong has clearly referred to the projects undertaken as legally binding, I think he wants to test that,” said an observer.
Like his father Kuan Yew, who made his last visit to Malaysia by meeting the government of the day and opposition leaders back then, it will be no surprise if his son wants to tackle other members in Pakatan.
The fact that Dr Mahathir has said yes to meeting Hsien Loong is a good start, but the outcome will be another matter. He would want to review all the agreements to make sure that Malaysia’s interests are protected.
As for bilateral concerns with Singapore, it will take time to study and rethink all the agreements that have been signed.
When Hsien Loong arrives in Putrajaya, he will be accorded with courtesy, but it will be a different dynamic at play.
Friendly discussion: A file photo of Hsien Loong (left) and Dr Mahathir sharing a light moment at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya in 2002.