Singapore, Malaysia have much in common despite disagreements, says minister

In a wide-ranging speech, Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing addressed global uncertainties as well as those closer to home. ― Picture by Jason Quah/TODAY
In a wide-ranging speech, Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing addressed global uncertainties as well as those closer to home. ― Picture by Jason Quah/TODAY

SINGAPORE, Aug 12 — Despite a recent spate of back-and-forth over the water agreement and a “game-changing” rail project, Singapore and Malaysia share more common interests than differences, and the Republic will work to ensure no single issue will dominate bilateral ties, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

“Our relationship is not dependent on one single project. We will work with every Malaysian government of the day ... on the basis of mutual benefit and mutual respect,” noted Chan, who is also a Member of Parliament (MP) for Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency, in a speech to his constituents at the Tanjong Pagar-Tiong Bahru National Day dinner.

He added: “We see opportunities for us to work together for mutual benefit. So, it’s on this basis that we will continue to make sure that no one single issue will dominate bilateral ties between the two countries We hope and we look forward to working closely with our new Malaysian counterparts to take the relationship forward.”

In his wide-ranging speech, Chan addressed global uncertainties over the US-China trade war, as well as those closer to home, such as questions over Singapore's relationship with the new Malaysian government helmed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Several points of contention have surfaced since Dr Mahathir’s government took power after prevailing at the country’s general election in May.

For one, the Malaysian authorities have raised the prospect of scrapping or postponing a high-speed rail (HSR) project connecting Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The fate of the 350km rail link, mooted by Malaysia in 2013, is currently uncertain.

Several Malaysian leaders, including Dr Mahathir, have also called for a review of the longstanding bilateral water deal inked in 1962, calling it “ridiculous”.

Singapore has reiterated on numerous occasions that Malaysia had lost its right to review the price of water in 1987.

Chan noted that Singapore, since independence in 1965, has built up its water capacity and diversified its water sources. These include desalinated water and NEWater — used water that is put through micro-filtration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection.

The progress Singapore has made on water security has given confidence that the issue will — “in good time” — cease to be a recurring point of contention between both countries, the minister added.

He further noted that Malaysia's need for water will grow as its economy expands, paving the way for “opportunities to work together for mutual benefit”. Chan did not elaborate.

Turning to global trade tensions, Chan noted that the net impact of the escalating US-China trade war on businesses here remains an open question.

“In every crisis there are both challenges and opportunities. For Singapore, as a small trading nation, we must be very keen to understand where those challenges and opportunities might be. We are working very hard to ensure that we don’t end up in the crossfire,” he told his audience of more than 900 residents, grassroots leaders and clan-association representatives, among others.

What is the hardest to predict, Chan added, is the trade spat's impact on global confidence, which if shaken, could affect the world and every country will be hit “gravely”.

Last month, the United States imposed hefty tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese imports, sparking a tit-for-tat trade war with Beijing. Trump has threatened to escalate the trade war with China even further, and is simultaneously targeting other economies with American tariffs and sanctions.

Some analysts have portrayed the trade war as a bold gambit by US President Donald Trump to force Beijing, and other foreign capitals, to bend to his will.

However, Chan cautioned against underestimating the different economic forces driving the two global powers.

The US economy, for instance, is grappling with deep structural challenges. Economic tensions between Washington and Beijing have also been building for decades, over complex issues like alleged intellectual-property theft and access to sensitive market segments such as telecommunications and high-technology.

In the face of uncertainties in the global economy, the government has taken steps over the years to ensure the resilience of Singapore’s economy, said Chan.

Apart from developing strong trading networks, the Republic has diversified its economy into a wider range of markets, enabling it to navigate disruptions.

As a small country with “very little bargaining power”, Singapore must keep at this, Chan said, by seeking new markets and strengthening its network of free-trade agreements with like-minded partners.

He added: “We must continue to go forth and seek new countries and new markets... This is to insulate against any potential trade disruption.

“We must round up enough like-minded partners that will stem the tide of unilateralism in the global trading system.”

Last month, Singapore was the third country to ratify the landmark Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, after Mexico and Japan.

The deal, which replaced the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Washington’s withdrawal from the negotiations, is set to reduce market barriers and foster trade in a combined market of 500 million people with a gross domestic product of US$10 trillion (RM40.8 trillion).

Among other trade pacts, the Republic is also hoping to substantially conclude negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free-trade deal among 16 Asia-Pacific countries, by the year’s end.

To stay ahead, innovation must become more pervasive in companies. Enterprises must also embrace technology and the need for re-training, as they shift to faster-growing sectors so that wages will continue to keep pace with the needs and aspirations of their workforce.

More broadly, Chan noted that the government has a plan to improve the lives of Singaporeans over the next 50 to 100 years, including new investments in education, public housing, and healthcare.

“We’re not done building Singapore yet,” he added. “Because we have put in place long-term plans in the areas of education, housing, healthcare and economic development, we can be confident that we will surpass the achievements of even the previous generation.” ― TODAY

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