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Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

Singapore and Malaysia: Same, same but different

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by January 20, 2018 General

JANUARY 21 — So our (Singapore and Malaysia) prime ministers had their annual retreat last week.

Officially called the Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat, the leaders of our two inextricably entwined nations get together annually to discuss what is really a special relationship.

In fact, the event may as well be called the annual Najib/Hsien Loong bro-fest as now, in its 8th iteration, the leaders have been the same since the outset.

As these two prime ministers who are presumably friends (certainly more than acquaintances) get together to discuss how we (the populations on either side of the causeways) should relate to each other, who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall?

I mean what do they get up to?

Do they roll up their sleeves to dig into some nasi lemak, then complain the sambal isn’t as good as in the old days and the price is too high — like Singaporean and Malaysian uncles everywhere?

Or is it really all business?

It’s very difficult to see how it can be all business as Singapore-Malaysia’s relationship is about so much more — culture, history, haze and water (never forget the water).

Between the two men too; by this point there has to be a personal relationship as they meet often and have a great deal in common.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak (left) shakes hands with his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong during the 8th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat in Singapore on January 16, 2018. — AFP picPrime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak (left) shakes hands with his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong during the 8th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat in Singapore on January 16, 2018. — AFP picBoth in power for good long periods, Hsien Loong the veteran since 2004 and even Najib the (relative) newcomer since 2009. Both are prime ministers and also the sons of prime ministers. Westernized, privileged, born and raised in the corridors of power. They are also almost exactly the same age 64 and 65 (Hsien Loong is older).

Of course like bosses everywhere they both seem to enjoy golf. It’s not clear to me who would win over 18 holes but Najib was commended on his game by no less a personage than ‘the Donald’ himself (a man who must know something about golf).

I think a cross causeway golf face off is in order. But jokes aside it is fascinating how similar the men are (on paper at least).

The one thing both deserve credit for is strengthening the Singapore-Malaysia relationship.

Bilateral trade stands at US$100 billion, and various long-standing issues pertaining to land and water have been resolved.

What was, in the time of Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew a prickly rivalry has become a co-operative partnership and the two PMs should get a lot of the credit here.

From last year’s high speed rail announcement to this year’s formalisation of the cross border Rapid Transit (metro) system (a world first maybe?) the two have brought about deeper and better relations between the two countries.

But one has to wonder if these stronger ties will survive beyond these two men. We will soon find out.

One way or other, the time is coming for a change of cast at the annual leadership retreat as Lee Hsien Loong has already said he will likely depart after the 2020 election.

Let’s hope Singapore and Malaysia will continue to have a good relationship no matter who helms either country in the future.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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