Thu, 28 Aug 2003

KL needs new strategy for S'pore

Azmi Hassan, Professor, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, The Strait Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The leadership transition in two neighboring countries, Malaysia and Singapore, is taking place as if there is agreement between the two heads of government.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will be relinquishing his post to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi this October.

This is not a surprising scenario because ever since Abdullah became Deputy Prime Minister, Malaysians have known he is the most qualified to succeed Mahathir.

In Singapore's case, it is a little unique as the leadership selection process is planned in detail to ensure that the decision is carried out smoothly.

When former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew relinquished his position in 1990 to Goh Chok Tong, many thought that this was just a shadow or temporary appointment to warm the seat before the reins were handed over to Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong.

The perception was reinforced by the appointment of Lee Kuan Yew as Senior Minister in Goh's Cabinet.

Now after 13 years, the assumptions are borne out.

When delivering Singapore's National Day Rally speech, Goh discussed openly his successor, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Lee Hsien Loong. There is a huge possibility that he will take over from Goh as PM in 2005, two years before the General Election is due to be held. Goh said because the new leader would need time to win the people's trust and confidence, a power transition should be carried out earlier.

Just like how the leadership styles of Mahathir and Abdullah are different, the leadership styles of Goh and DPM Lee are also different.

Goh's leadership is considered friendlier and he is willing to accept the views of others, unlike the senior Lee who is seen as more firm and hard. Although DPM Lee may not share all of his father's leadership characteristics, he is also said to be firm and hard. And unlike Goh's technocrat background, the younger Lee has wide experience in the military field. Before entering politics in 1984, he was in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for 13 years and retired as a Brigadier-General.

Just as Singapore has likely drawn up a strategy to deal with Abdullah as the future PM of Malaysia, Malaysia too should draw up a strategy to deal with the younger Lee.

This is because the strategy practiced in Goh's era may not work any more.

If we were to study Malaysia's way of handling problems arising from the water pricing issue and the Gerbang Selatan Bersepadu development project, basically Malaysia is on the right track.

Malaysia's decision to resolve the water pricing problem via arbitration is wise; if the issue is left to drag on, especially when the younger Lee becomes PM, Singapore would likely continue to enjoy water at three cents per 1,000 gallons until 2061.

Malaysia's decision to proceed with the GSB development project without Singapore, and the construction of a crooked bridge to replace the Malaysian side of the Causeway, is seen as a classic strategy in dealing with Singapore's new leadership.

The RM 1.1 billion (Malaysian ringgit) GSB project involving the construction of the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine complex (CIQ), JB Sentral Terminal, and the road and rail bridge, are critical, not just for Johor's economic progress, but also for that of Malaysia.

Singapore will be in an uncomfortable position when GSB's construction is fully completed. This is because the demolition of the Malaysian side of the Causeway will be good for Johor's two main ports -- Pasir Gudang Port and Port of Tanjung Pelepas -- as cargo movement between the two ports will be more efficient along the sea-lane.

However, what is more important is that GSB's development can restore the echo-system at the Tebrau Straits, with water flowing more freely. This is critical in determining the success of the Danga Bay and Lido Beach projects.

Both projects take up 1,600 hectares, and have the ability to turn Johor Baru town into a beautiful waterfront city like those of Sydney, San Francisco, Vancouver and Venice.

Singapore does not want this to happen as it may be detrimental to the Republic's economy if too many Singaporeans flock to Malaysia.

According to a periodic survey by Singapore Press Holdings, after Australia, Malaysia is the second-most popular destination for Singaporeans wanting to emigrate after they retire.

This scenario may be similar to what happened in Hong Kong.

China's Shenzhen, which is close to Hong Kong, is the main attraction of Hong Kongers who like shopping and food.

Although various restrictions were imposed, making it difficult for Hong Kongers to visit Shenzhen, the efforts failed as the attraction was too strong. What happened in Hong Kong's case may also happen to Singapore.

This is something which the future leadership of Singapore may have to face.

With 85,000 unemployed Singaporeans -- unemployment rate at 4.5 percent -- and the losses suffered by Singapore's two economic pillars, Singapore Airlines and PSA Corporation, it is certain Singapore's future leadership will draw up several strategies to prevent money from flowing out.

Soon, Malaysia will face various pressures and intense competition from Singapore as the leaders there will do anything to salvage their national economy from plunging.

Malaysia should be prepared to face this challenge.

The writer is journalist of Berita Harian (Malaysia).