Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Mr Najib Razak at a press conference in Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur on Dec 13, 2016.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Mr Najib Razak at a press conference in Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur on Dec 13, 2016. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

It will be a busy year for Singapore's diplomats, as the nation deepens bilateral and multilateral ties. 

Singapore and its closest neighbour, Malaysia, are in what some observers recently described as the "golden years" of bilateral ties, having overcome a rocky past to ink a historic deal last month to build an ambitious high-speed rail (HSR) line by 2026.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the two countries had some unresolved issues, including the 1990 Points of Agreement (POA) to move the Malayan Railways station in Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. 

The POA was resolved after 20 years, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak made a landmark swop deal in 2010. 

In the years since, the relationship between the two countries has visibly warmed.

For the year ahead, they must draft tender documents for the HSR, and call an international tender for an assets company to design, build, finance and maintain the line's rail assets and trains. They will also look to sign a bilateral agreement on a separate rapid transit system link, which will connect the Thomson-East Coast MRT line to Johor Baru. 

But Singapore must continue to monitor political developments in Malaysia that could pose an obstacle, said Mr David Han, a research analyst with the Malaysia programme at the  S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"There have been voices within Malaysia, such as opposition groups, that have questioned the viability of the HSR agreement," he said.

"If they gain prominence, we might expect domestic contestation. Singapore should actively see to it that the project is started earnestly in 2017, and find ways to overcome delays expediently."

As Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Singapore - which will be the Asean-China coordinator until the middle of next year - will take the lead in ensuring the conclusion of a meaningful code of conduct, to lay down the rules of engagement in the South China Sea.

It must do so even as China appears to be irked by what nationalist Chinese newspaper The Global Times said in November were Singapore's "far from neutral" views on the matter. 

Most observers think that a viable code of conduct would be difficult to realise. "One of the reasons China is putting diplomatic pressure on Singapore is that Singapore has taken over the Asean-China coordinator role from Thailand, which managed this role in a way that China found favourable," said Dr William Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. "A code of conduct that is legally binding or that will manifestly change China's approach to its unlawful claims in the South China Sea is very unlikely."

With the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) all but dead - United States President-elect Donald Trump said he would scrap the trade deal - Singapore is set to turn its focus to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which excludes the US. 

The Asean-led trade pact involves the 10 Asean members and the six countries that the grouping has free-trade agreements with - Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea and India. Negotiations are expected to be substantially completed by the end of the year. 

Said  ISEAS - Yusof Ishak fellow Norshahril Saat: "Judging from statements made by some TPP signatories, they already have a backup plan, which means more effort will be placed into realising the RCEP. So Singapore will push for it regardless of what happens to the TPP."

Singapore will continue to strengthen other diplomatic ties as well. 

The Republic celebrates its 50th anniversary of bilateral relations with Indonesia this year.

Before President Tony Tan Keng Yam's term ends in August, he is expected to visit several countries - including  Cambodia and Laos - later this month.

And Germany has invited Singapore to the Group of 20 Summit in July.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'Diplomacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe