Does anybody know what Malaysia actually wants?
That’s the question I keep asking myself whenever the next twist in the affair hits newspaper headlines – with the latest one happening just last week.
On the 8th of January, Foreign Ministers of both countries concluded what seemed to be a productive meeting, arriving at an agreement to temporarily revert back to status quo ante in dispute over Seletar airport (i.e. freezing any changes on both sides for a month) and establish a working group to settle the issue of maritime boundaries.
It all appeared perfectly positive.
And then, the very next day Johor’s Chief Minister decided he’d like to go on a cruise to visit the disputed maritime area and shake hands with the sailors – effectively ruining the accomplishments of the previous 24 hours, prompting protests and forcing Singapore to cancel the upcoming Iskandar meeting.
Whatever excuses Malaysian politicians want to make it’s an example of either monumental incompetence or simply ill will – or perhaps both at the same time.
In addition, it looks like a completely botched attempt at playing good cop / bad cop in foreign affairs.
It’s as if someone in Malaysian MFA picked up “Psychology 101” in Kinokuniya last weekend and thought it would be good to send mixed signals to somehow confuse Singapore in order to extract more from it than would otherwise be possible. Subsequent ineptitude in execution of this “plan” was really rather amusing.
However, for all the entertainment that Malaysian politicians deliver, we should not forget that nothing that’s happening is a laughing matter. Singapore may be comfortably strong to remain patient about its neighbor’s petulance but it should not suggest that this behavior will be condoned.
The reality is far more disconcerting, since someone across the border thought it was acceptable at all. It’s not – and it should never be.
On October 25th, when everybody was going about their life, Malaysian authorities decided to intrude into Singaporean territorial waters, laying a claim to them in a fashion similar to a parang-wielding thug barging into somebody’s house demanding money and silverware.
Given that such violent acts are a regular occurrence in Malaysia, local politicians have clearly – however bizarrely – considered them to be a good inspiration for handling foreign policy.
Unfortunately, they somehow failed to notice that it’s also tantamount to extortion.
No self-respecting nation – especially one that is strong enough to defend its interests – can agree to any concessions in these circumstances. It’s like negotiating how much of the loot the robber can keep – and being expected to shake hands afterwards.
In other words, Malaysia has created conditions in which it cannot win anything because Singapore both cannot and doesn’t have to yield to its attempt at a daylight robbery.
Relenting would mean that not only is such behavior acceptable – but that it even produces benefits for the offender. It would create a dangerous precedent which could embolden other countries – like Indonesia or China – to use similar tactics with Singapore in the future.
Since the maritime boundaries at that point of Johor Straits have not been precisely delineated, the civilized thing to do would be to simply raise the issue with Singaporean government and negotiate a relevant treaty – not attempt an overnight annexation to later feign good will.
As it is, Malaysian myopia has elevated it from a minor dispute to a matter of strategic importance to the Lion City – what left very little space for any diplomatic maneuvers.
Malaysia Has Already Lost
Perhaps the most ironic thing is that through its irrational behavior the country is already hurting itself – and its people.
The biggest victim of Seletar’s closure was… Firefly, a Malaysian airline regularly flying its turboprop planes to the airport.
As it is grounded, every month incurs RM15-20 million (S$5-6.5 million) in losses and the company is desperate for a solution. Not to mention that the airline’s image will certainly be hurt as well, as its clients might be wary of future disruptions.
Singapore has also called off the annual Iskandar meeting – a platform for government-level cooperation regarding mutual investments in the special economic zone in Johor. Clearly it doesn’t bode well for future projects on Malaysian soil – at least not with the current team in charge.
Most importantly, however, it has already damaged trust between the two countries – and Malaysian image abroad, where behavior of the new authorities in Putrajaya hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Just as Johor’s Menteris Besar was enjoying his sailing trip, Japanese Nomura Global Research downgraded the rating of Malaysian shares, criticizing the government for lack of reforms.
Clearly, it had better things to do…
Mahathir’s Fixed-Pie Fallacy
As I wrote a few weeks ago, Dr. M is clearly a cunning politician but his track record proves a certain lack of aptitude in managing the country productively (which is why Malaysia remains so far behind its neighbor).
Even today he remains convinced that the only way to gain anything is to claw it from someone else, that politics is a zero-sum game and that the “pie” is fixed and you can only get ahead by trying to take the biggest slice at somebody else’s expense.
Mahathir has consistently, for years, failed to realize that there is a lot more to gain from cooperation with your neighbors than can be won through conflict.
And so he continues to indulge his “parang diplomacy”, like a robber circling around his target, waiting for the moment of vulnerability to strike and extort something of value.
Paradoxically, this pressure he likes to impose on the Little Red Dot, only resulted in greater motivation for the city-state to become stronger and more self-reliant – while reducing cross-border cooperation, which has caused his own country to lose many opportunities.
So, while Dr. M keeps obsessing about Singapore, Singapore is busy charting the future.
Future, that Malaysia enviously tries to sabotage rather than join.