Why Mahathir is antagonistic towards S'pore

Residual issues from his first stint as Malaysia prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

Belmont Lay | February 10, 2019, 07:28 PM

Nikkei Asian Review, a venerable weekly business journal in Japan, on Feb. 6 attempted to explain Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's antagonism towards Singapore.

In the article, "Mahathir still living in the shadow of Lee Kuan Yew", it summed up the rocky relations between the two countries as a continuation of Mahathir's past dealings with Singapore and its first prime minister.

Why Singaporeans are interested in this piece

The Nikkei article has been liked and shared on Facebook more than 2,700 times over four days since its publication, which shows that this issue is of significant interest, particularly to Singaporeans.

And why should more Singaporeans read it?

While it can be tricky for Singapore's press to directly diagnose the source of Mahathir's barbed approach these days, it is easier for an outsider publication to articulate the points.

And it also crystallises the discussion into one coherent account, as it draws on many existing narratives that have attempted to explain why some things are happening between Singapore and Malaysia these days.

Why is Mahathir antagonistic then?

The Nikkei piece hashed out a few overlapping narratives, when taken as a whole, is broad but cogent.

Based on the title of the article, one solid reason for Mahathir's approach to Singapore now is that he has not moved on from the previous era when he was prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

And as Lee Kuan Yew's peer, there were many unresolved issues.

Different levels of success

As Singapore and Malaysia embarked on different modernisation plans after separation, the perceived disparity between the two countries initially stemmed from the different racial policies implemented -- Malaysia adopted pro-Bumiputera policies, while Singapore emphasised equality despite being 70 percent Chinese.

Within a span of three decades, as Singapore modernised into an efficient financial hub, she was still seen as growing at the expense of Malaysia.

Nikkei wrote:

Mahathir's criticism of Singapore peaked during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The nation became a market for short-selling Malaysia's currency and stocks, dealing a serious blow to the country's economy. Mahathir lashed out at Singapore, calling the hedge funds that operated out of it "rogues."

Malaysia's decision to review the stock market trading link reflects Mahathir's bitter memory of the time, analysts say.

This stock market trading link proposal that has been scuttled, refers to plans for the link between Bursa Malaysia and Singapore Exchange announced by Najib in February 2018.

Both countries had aimed to set up the link by the end of last year.

The link would have allowed investors in both countries to trade and settle shares listed on each other's exchanges, giving them easier and seamless access to each other's markets with a combined market capitalisation of more than US$1.2 trillion (S$1.58 trillion) and 1,600 public listed companies.

Walking back on Najib's approach

As a peer of the late Lee, Mahathir's approach to bilateral relations was finessed during the rough and tumble, zero sum game, post-colonial world epoch.

The chummy nature of Najib's administration with Singapore will never sit well with Mahathir.

All the cancelled plans and territorial intrusions happening since May 2018 is Mahathir walking back on the rising cooperation previously established by the former Malaysian prime minister.

This was compounded by the Najib administration's promotion of the huge Iskandar Malaysia development project in Johor bordering Singapore, which kicked off the high-speed rail plan on which Iskandar depends.

Najib also settled the issue involving Malayan Railways, which formerly operated trains into the city centre of Singapore, that put a drag on urban development here.

Malaysia is perhaps seen as handing over the valuable land, without first squeezing more favourable concessions from Singapore, or perhaps reserving the deal as part of collective packaged negotiations in the future.

Moreover, Najib and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have chemistry as they are 65 and 66, respectively.

Their fathers, Razak Hussein and Lee Kuan Yew, also served as prime minsters.

Such similarities helped the two forge a bond that resulted in good relations between the countries, Nikkei said.

Malaysia can count its benefits too

One way forward to stabilise relations would be for Malaysia to count its benefits as a result of cooperation with Singapore, which is less zero sum and more proportionate than imagined.

Tang Siew Mung, senior fellow at the ISEA-Yusof Ishak Institute, who was born in Malaysia but now resides in Singapore, told Nikkei: "Too much is said [about] Singapore's dependence on Malaysia for its water resources and food, while there is too little acknowledgment [of] how much Malaysia benefits from good relations with its southern neighbor."

He cited an example, which is that Malaysian farmers' biggest export market is Singapore.

Previously on Nikkei Asian Review:

Top photo via


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