Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen gave his view of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s recent remarks during a media interview ahead of the 55th Singapore Armed Forces Day.
"Take it at face value"
In comments covered by The Straits Times, Ng said:
"I'm not sure that I need to give a response because Dr Mahathir wasn't talking to us... He's a known entity, is respected as an elder and he has dealt with previous prime ministers, including (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong). This is all on record.
If you want to jump up and down each time Dr Mahathir speaks, then you will be jumping like a jumping bean. You have to take a few breaths and give him the respect that he is due. He says it for different audiences and he himself said that those comments were not for us, so we should just take it at face value."
Ng was speaking in an interview on June 30, as part of the media coverage of the 55th anniversary of National Service.
He was asked about comments that Mahathir had made on June 19 at a Malay nationalist event. He had referred to Pedra Branca, Singapore, and the Riau Islands as "Tanah Melayu", or Malay Lands; suggesting that they should be reclaimed by Johor.
Just a few days earlier on June 16, the Sultan of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar blasted the Malaysian federal government.
The Sultan had said that the federal government treated the state of Johor like a "stepchild" and again threatened to secede. One specific example of the federal government “lackadaisical attitude” towards the state’s sovereignty was the case of Pulau Batu Puteh, known to Singapore as Pedra Branca.Ibrahim said that the federal government had failed to consult with Johor in 2018 when it decided to withdraw its appeal to the International Court of Justice over the island. He also said that it was “a clear breach of Johor’s rights as enshrined in the Federation Agreement”.
The incident was one of Mahathir’s first major foreign policy decisions when returning to power after the earthquake victory of the Malaysian opposition in 2018.
Mahathir took issue with the sultan’s statements, and on June 19, he specifically said that “there is no demand whatsoever of Singapore. Instead we should show our appreciation to the leadership of this new country called Singapore.”
This is likely what Ng was referring to when he said that Mahathir “himself said those comments were not for us”.
Perhaps more concerning were not Mahathir's June 19 comments themselves, but the cheer that ran through the crowd when he made them.
You can view his entire speech, delivered in Malay, here:
Out of context
But in the weeks since the comments were made, Mahathir himself has clarified that point, saying that his comments were taken out of context.
He also added that “losing Pulau Batu Puteh is no big deal. It was the mistake of the Johore Government to deny that the rock belonged to Johor."
He also repeated a comment that he has made multiple times, that the ICJ award of Sipadan and Ligitan was more significant, and that Malaysia should be "thankful Indonesia has not disputed the award", and that Malaysia was "not grateful for our gains".However, Singapore's sensitivity on the issue is not unwarranted, even if Mahathir had not intended to provoke with his comments. As reported by The Edge, the current Malaysian government of Ismail Sabri has set up a task force to review Malaysia’s options regarding Pedra Branca.
Mahathir walked out of a recent panel on the issue when he found out that it was chaired by the former Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, who had been responsible for the 2018 appeal before it was withdrawn. Mahathir said that it was a conflict of interest.
Grinding the axe
Mahathir for his part has continued to grind his axe with the Sultan of Johor. In a report by Malaysiakini, Mahathir was asked about the Ibrahim’s accusation that it was Mahathir who lost the claim over Pedra Branca.
Mahathir responded by saying that the Johor has sold off portions of land far larger than the island, and that at the rate he was going, “there will be no Johor”.
For Ng's part, Mahathir's comments and the questions surrounding them have a certain element of familiarity. Just five years ago in 2018, he gave a similar response also on SAF day.
Mahathir, then newly installed as Prime Minister again, had complained about the price of water paid by Singapore, to which Ng replied that it was "unnecessary to respond to their every articulation. "
In a case of history rhyming, he added that it was best not to "jump up and down when their styles and priorities change."
Top image via Mindef.gov.sg & Astro Awani/YouTube