Anwar: Malaysia and Singapore should resolve and move beyond issues to improve ties

Malaysia’s recent calls to review the price of water sold to Singapore and other projects have raised concerns. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim has said it was right for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to revisit bilateral issues like the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail and water price, but both countries should try to resolve and move beyond them.

In an interview published on Thursday (Sept 13), he said some deals under former PM Najib Razak were suspect, and some of the positions and political views Singapore took were seen as excessive.

"But I think we have to move on," he said. "What is important is to continue to engage to try to resolve and move beyond these two issues. Bottomline is we have to work together."

In the interview with S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, senior fellow Yang Razali Kassim, Datuk Seri Anwar said he wants more exchanges with Singapore at various levels - government, civil society, students, investment and trade - when he becomes Prime Minister.

"Everything should be done to cement this relationship. Both countries will need each other."

Malaysia's PM-in-waiting also feels Singapore-Malaysia ties "will improve" in the years after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad hands over power.

"But I think it is not just because of Mahathir," he said.

Tun Dr Mahathir has repeatedly said that he will at some point hand over power to Mr Anwar, who he sacked as his deputy in 1998 but reconciled with ahead of the May 2018 general election to defeat former Mr Najib.

But Dr Mahathir's calls to review the high-speed rail project and the price of water sold to Singapore have raised concerns. Dr Mahathir had in August suggested the water price be raised 10 times, but Singapore has maintained that KL had lost its right to renegotiate the price when it did not do so in 1987, as spelt out in a 1962 agreement.

"It is quite right for Mahathir to raise those issues," Mr Anwar said.

"If you see the relationship under (then) PM Najib as good… it was not necessarily something positive, because some deals are suspect, dubious," he added, citing a view expressed by several of his Pakatan Harapan colleagues.

"Some of the positions taken by Singapore, the political views, are considered by many particularly those in the opposition (then) to be excessive," he added.

Both countries last week agreed to defer work on the 350km high-speed rail project till May 2020.

Mr Anwar did the interview with Mr Yang Razali, a former Singapore Press Holdings correspondent, at his office near Kuala Lumpur on August 31.

Mr Anwar said the consensus in Malaysia is to establish strong bonds with its neighbours, and "Singapore is exceptional because of historical, economic, trade, cultural (factors)."

But he also touched on the different working styles of both sides, saying: "For Singapore the problem is we in Malaysia (are) not so business-like, but also (stress) the cultural angle, which we feel that Singapore lacks - strict dollars and cents, rule and order."

"I mean you work among neighbours, the relationship should transcend that a bit. But I don't think that it is something substantial, too prohibitive in terms of forging that sort of relationship," he said.

Mr Anwar, who with his wife Deputy PM Wan Azizah Wan Ismail met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Putrajaya on May 19, said that initial visit "gave a signal that he wants to move on, to forge this sort of good relations with Malaysia".

"I can sense Malaysian leaders are encouraged to visit (Singapore), no inhibitions. Similarly Singapore leaders are coming regularly, which I think is a good signal," he added.

Asked by Mr Yang Razali if he meant it would be better if Singapore becomes less business-like, he said: "No, I am saying Singapore as a country is built on that ruggedness. I am not questioning that.

"But I think realities are realities - the socio-cultural fabric (is) something we tend to be more relaxed about."

Asked about his vision as PM, Mr Anwar said the issue was irrelevant for now, and would articulate his views when the time comes.

"For now, my task is to support the present prime minister."

As for whether Dr Mahathir had indicated a hand over date, Mr Anwar said: "No, we have serious discussions but I don't worry at all about it."

Asked if the lack of a timeframe meant a lack of clarity, he replied: "The only clarity about that is that he becomes a lameduck prime minister. I don't want that. I want him to be an effective prime minister."

He added: "He has given me excellent access. At 12 o'clock, four o'clock, I am there at his office."

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