Tit-for-tat diplomacy can backfire

Should Singapore respond in kind to Malaysian actions, it may be perceived as revenge, which can turn dangerous if either side miscalculates.
Should Singapore respond in kind to Malaysian actions, it may be perceived as revenge, which can turn dangerous if either side miscalculates.PHOTO: ST FILE

Tit-for-tat diplomacy is a flawed strategy that can backfire (Time S'pore responded like-for-like to Malaysia, by Mr Cheng Shoong Tat; Jan 15).

The slightest mistake in perception may result in the complete breakdown of the strategy, and make it difficult to carry on diplomatic functions.

As close neighbours, there will always be high and low points in Singapore and Malaysia's relations, especially after a change of government.

During Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's first stint as prime minister in the 90s, bilateral ties went through a rocky patch. Yet Singapore reacted in a dignified and mature manner instead of engaging in pointless tit-for-tat actions.

Should Singapore respond in kind to Malaysian actions, it may be perceived as revenge, which can turn dangerous if either side miscalculates.

Instead, we should let Malaysia set the pace while we proceed at a rate that they are comfortable with, while making sure that Singapore's interests are not compromised.

Singapore's restrained reactions should not be misunderstood as a sign that we are weak.

While the United States and China can afford tit-for-tat actions, Singapore and Malaysia's relations are too important to risk.

Two wrongs can never make a right, and an eye for an eye will just leave both countries blind.

Relations between neighbours can return to normal once they are on the same page. To get there, think outside the box and make decisions that advance cooperation.

Cheng Choon Fei

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2019, with the headline 'Tit-for-tat diplomacy can backfire'. Print Edition | Subscribe