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.

The Star Malaysia - - Nation - Com­ment MERGAWATI ZULFAKAR merga@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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