Observers expect more uncertainty in Singapore-KL ties

Experts at The Straits Times Global Briefing say bilateral ties are set for greater uncertainty, based on how Dr Mahathir Mohamad's government conducted relations with Singapore after the May 9 general election.

Relations between Singapore and Malaysia are set for greater uncertainty if the first three months of the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government are anything to go by, regional watchers at a forum said yesterday.

Singapore's concerns about a government led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad have not been assuaged by the way he has conducted relations with Singapore since he took charge after the May 9 general election, especially over issues better negotiated in private, they said.

"The first 100 days have set the stage perhaps for even more uncertainty in terms of what buttons the Mahathir-led government is going to press in its bilateral relationship with Singapore," said Professor Joseph Liow, dean of Nanyang Technological University's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Singapore's Government already had its concerns, given the "less than pleasant" experiences with Dr Mahathir during his previous stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

"It is understandable that there is some measure of concern, which is not helped by the way Dr Mahathir conducted relations with Singapore," Prof Liow said at The Straits Times Global Briefing sponsored by OCBC Premier Banking.

For instance, his public comments in recent months on cancelling or deferring the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail, without officially informing Singapore, were not the best way to conduct diplomacy, said Prof Liow.

He added that Dr Mahathir's raising the issue of the water agreements could also be a negotiating tactic. "We should not discount the fact that Mahathir has always liked to cucuk (poke in Malay) Singapore."

His fellow panellist, OCBC economist Selena Ling, said: "A lot of the ministers have memories of how the last Mahathir regime panned out for Singapore."

This could shape how they view the PH government, which could make future relations challenging, she added.

Questions on the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia dominated the question-and-answer time at the forum, with participants also interested to hear whether PH's victory could be replicated in Singapore.


The PH coalition of four parties successfully teamed up and toppled the Umno-led government which ruled Malaysia for 61 years.

The panellists did not think a similar regime change was likely in Singapore despite seven opposition parties getting together recently to discuss forming a coalition led by former People's Action Party MP Tan Cheng Bock.

Panellist and ST's Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh said: "No disrespect to the opposition politicians in Singapore, but they are not Mahathir Mohamad. When Tun Dr Mahathir entered the opposition in Malaysia, it was a huge milestone.

"No previous prime minister had ever joined the opposition, and he was not just any PM, but the longest-serving PM," Mr Teoh added.

Prof Liow said: "What happened in Malaysia was a major rejection of (former prime minister) Najib (Razak) and what he had done or not done to the country and its economy, first and foremost. Until you have a similar setting in Singapore, the context is fundamentally different."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2018, with the headline 'Observers expect more uncertainty in S'pore-KL ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe