S'pore-M'sia relations during 1981 to 2003 Mahathir era were testy

The era was marked by 'confrontational diplomacy'.

Tanya Ong | Henedick Chng | Belmont Lay | May 13, 2018, 02:39 PM

Mahathir Mohamad is the new prime minister of Malaysia.

Mahathir was previously Malaysia's fourth prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

He is now the seventh.

Era of "confrontational diplomacy"

From 1981 to 2003, Malaysia-Singapore relations under Mahathir were characterised by "confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric" between both countries.

A term brought up by then-PM Najib Razak at a press conference earlier this year, it referred to the frequent clashes and tensions between Singapore and Malaysia when Mahathir was PM.

Najib also commented that he did not wish for Malaysia to return to that era:

“We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries. It was an era that we want to forget.”

Cordial at first

The era of confrontational diplomacy was not set in motion the moment Mahathir took office the first time though.

In the initial stages, it was cordial.

Mahathir lifted Malaysia's ban on exporting construction materials to Singapore, which allowed Singapore to acquire a portion of Malayan Railway land at Tanjong Pagar station for an expressway extension.

The Malaysian premier also affirmed that Malaysia would honour the 1962 Water Agreement to provide 250 million gallons of water per day to Singapore.

Relations soured over the years

But relations soured over the years, and Malaysia-Singapore relations reached the lowest point in both countries' history during the second half of Mahathir's premiership.

Some unresolved issues that both countries faced during the 1990s and early 2000s include:

  • The Pedra Branca dispute
  • A deadlock over the implementation of the Malaysia-Singapore Points of Agreement (POA) of 1990
  • Issues concerning the CPF of Malaysians working in Singapore
  • The water agreements
  • Construction of a "crooked" bridge to replace the existing Causeway.

Issues on water pricing and agreements

Perhaps the most serious issue that strained relations between Malaysia and Singapore during that era concerned the water agreements between both countries.

In the early 2000s, Malaysia under Mahathir, wanted to revise the price of raw water it sold to Singapore, but faced a legal roadblock.

The 1961 and 1962 Water Agreements allowed for a price review 25 years after the respective agreements were signed.

However, Malaysia chose not to review the price of water in 1986 for the 1961 Water Agreement and 1987 for the 1962 Water Agreement.

Thus, Singapore took the view that Malaysia had lost its right to review the price of water.

But Malaysia did not let up, and things got so bad that Singapore was pushed into releasing the correspondence of between the leaders of Malaysia and Singapore to clarify unfair accusations made by Malaysia on the issue.

In Parliament on Jan. 25, 2003, then foreign affairs minister S Jayakumar said:

"In setting out the facts, I shall be releasing the correspondence between the leaders of both countries and the diplomatic exchanges. I will also circulate copies of the two Water Agreements of 1961 and 1962, plus a supplementary water agreement in 1990 relating to the building of the Linggiu dam on the Johor River and the purchase by Singapore of treated water in excess of the 250 million gallons per day (mgd) from this river. These are all documents for the record. I have been reluctant to release these documents despite misrepresentation of facts from the other side because we hoped for a win-win outcome. But I have to release them now because this hope is no longer realistic and so much misinformation on the water issue has been put out by Malaysia that needs to be rebutted by conclusive evidence. Despite repeated attempts to clear the air through various MFA Spokesman’s comments and Parliamentary statements by me in this House, Malaysian misrepresentations have not ceased. Recently, there has even been loose talk of war in some Malaysian circles. We therefore have no choice but to set the record straight by releasing these documents for people to judge for themselves the truth of the matter. These documents will clear the air for everyone, especially Singaporeans who travel to Malaysia, read their media and talk to their Malaysian friends. These documents are in two volumes which will be given to Members. Madam Deputy Speaker, I request that they be part of the official records of the House."

As it stands today, the 1961 Water Agreement expired in 2011, and there has not been any changes to the price of raw water sold to Singapore via the existing 1962 Water Agreement.

Malaysia has also said that it would honour the 1962 Water Agreement, and that any review of water pricing was only possible if Singapore agreed to it.

Public airing of strained relations

The strained relations during the Mahathir era also played out very publicly during those years, with Mahathir often taking every public opportunity to make loose jibes at Singapore, such as the one below.

It is clear that that period of Malaysia-Singapore relations was a tumultuous one.

Improving of relations

Fortunately for both countries, relations improved after the Mahathir era, when both sides took a less confrontational approach.

In the era under PM Lee Hsien Loong and PM Najib Razak, in particular, relations flourished, especially with diplomatic efforts.

The establishment of the Singapore-Malaysia leaders' retreat, which began in 2010, allowed leaders of both countries to build on ties.

In 2010, PM Lee and PM Najib also managed to settle unresolved issues relating to the 1990 POA.


Moving on from here

In light of the opposition's victory during GE14, the new government led by Mahathir will be filled with politicians with less experience and have not felt the full force of the trappings of political office.

The nature of future bilateral relations remains shrouded in uncertainty.

A clean slate could pave the way for a new path forward and a different approach to diplomacy that would see more reconciliation, or it could take a leaf from Mahathir's book as those were the precedents set.

However, regardless of who is in power, Singapore's political leaders have expressed their hope that Singapore can work closely with the new Malaysian government.

Top image from NAS

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