Malaysia, Singapore 'cannot fail' at maintaining 'strong' ties, says Anwar Ibrahim

Anwar said that Singapore-Malaysia’s relationship should not just be about ‘dollars and cents, rule and order’.—TODAY pic
Anwar said that Singapore-Malaysia’s relationship should not just be about ‘dollars and cents, rule and order’.—TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Sept 16 — The strong economic and historical ties between Singapore and Malaysia are too important to fail, said Malaysian political leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim yesterday.

“It is strong and we cannot fail. I don’t think it is sensible to create any problems between these two countries,” he said at the annual Singapore Summit, a conference for business and thought leaders to discuss business and global affairs.

The prime minister-in-waiting was responding to a question by Singapore’s former Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who had asked Anwar for his take on bilateral relations and whether there are any models being looked at to boost ties.

Following the Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) ascension to power after Malaysia’s historic May 9 polls, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s statements on the price of water sold to Singapore and the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project had raised concerns that Malaysia may return to a confrontational stance in engaging Singapore, which had been the case under Dr Mahathir’s first premiership stint from 1981 to 2003.

But at the conference, Anwar — who is the president-elect of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, a component party of PH — said that “I honestly don’t believe there is a problem” between both nations.

While Dr Mahathir has taken “extreme steps” that are “not too popular”, they are necessary for the country’s economic stability. “In the short term, this is critical,” added Anwar.

Dr Mahathir had previously said he wanted to scrap the HSR project, among others, to cut the country’s RM1 trillion (S$336 billion) debt. He later made a U-turn, saying the Malaysian government wants it to be deferred.

After months of uncertainty on the HSR project, both countries on Sept 5 officially postponed it till 2020, with Malaysia to pay abortive costs of S$15 million to Singapore by January next year.

Dr Mahathir has also said that the price of water Malaysia sells to Singapore under the 1962 Water Agreement is “manifestly ridiculous” and that he would like to raise it by at least 10 times. But Singapore has maintained that Putrajaya had lost its right to a price review when it did not do so in 1987, as spelt out in the 1962 agreement.

In an interview published on Thursday, Anwar had said that Dr Mahathir was right to revisit these issues as some of the deals signed by the previous Datuk Seri Najib Razak government were “dubious” and some of Singapore’s positions and views were considered by PH “to be excessive”.

But he added that both sides “have to move on” and the bottomline is “we have to work together”.

He also noted that Singapore can be too “business-like”, a point which he reiterated yesterday, adding to the crowd of about 400 people that Singapore-Malaysia’s relationship should not just be about “dollars and cents, rule and order”.

He also noted that the younger generation of leaders from both countries do not have the “same exposure and experience and relationship as the first generation or the second generation”. As such, they have to make additional effort to build a strong rapport.

To illustrate that, Anwar cited the visit by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Malaysia shortly after PH’s electoral victory and days after Anwar was granted a full pardon and released from prison following serving a jail term for sodomy.

Calling Lee’s visit in May where he met with various Malaysian leaders a “nice gesture”, Anwar said that “these signals are important”. He added: “Because this goes beyond diplomatic encounters or business deals, but I think to rebuild the trust.”

In his 20-minute opening speech before the dialogue, Anwar spoke about his country’s domestic issues, reiterating several points made previously, including the fact that affirmative action and assistance should be based on needs, and not race or religion.

Pointing out that the PH government has moved to reform key institutions such as its anti-corruption commission, which is now accountable to Parliament instead of the prime minister, Anwar said that “never again will we allow the executive to will so much power and leave so much damage to the nation”.

Anwar is set to contest in an upcoming by-election in the seat of Port Dickson in Negri Sembilan state, as part of his planned return to political office.

The agreement in PH is for Dr Mahathir to serve for two years before handing over power to Anwar.

Asked at the dialogue whether the two-year succession timeline will take place, Anwar said it is part of the plan and he “trusts” that Dr Mahathir will fulfil it.

Asked by reporters afterwards whether he prefers to succeed sooner, Anwar said that there is no rush, saying that Dr Mahathir is playing a critical role and that the country needs stability.

“We support him. I want to make sure he is effective in his position,” he added.

“If and when I assume the premiership, then I will make sure that one of the first countries I visit will be Singapore.” — TODAY