Mon, 21 Aug 2000

Senior Minister Lee's trip to Malaysia a key maker

SINGAPORE: Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's stay in Malaysia, which he wished could have lasted longer, accomplished rather more than was expected of a trip billed as a refresher. He is walking history: The surviving Singaporean link between the tumultuous 1960s days before and after merger, and the development era when the two countries diverged markedly, each responding to different stimuli.

At the back of people's minds would be two questions: Could he and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad settle once and for all the outstanding issues -- principally on water supply, but also, the status of Malayan 1 Railway land and West Malaysians' CPF money? Would there follow a substantive improvement in relations, easy and relaxed, such that they could not be buffeted by the occasional gale over assumed intrusions into Johor and the like?

On the first point, all the nuanced remarks heard from Lee have been encouraging. He left the distinct impression that blockages were on the way to being cleared, whereupon compromise would be possible to bring about a resolution that would meet the needs of both sides.

If, indeed, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Dr Mahathir do meet in two or three months' time, one could presume the "stalemate" Lee mentioned would have been broken. He was careful to say, before the trip, that he did not want to raise expectations unduly. In similar vein, the Malaysian Foreign Minister said it would be wonderful if the visit brought results.

In the circumstances, Lee's reference to "two, three months" as a possible time-frame for the prime ministers' meeting had to be significant. If this bears out, there could be no better start to the millennium for Singaporeans -- certainly if water supply was no longer subject to the vagaries of the political climate.

On bilateral ties, it is harder to judge whether an agreement on those issues alone, while definitely a boon, can be characterized as bedrock. Water is a Singaporean concern, and with good reason. Malaysians may not quite see the issue in similar vein. They have to climb into a Singaporean mind on this matter to engage effectively.

Singaporeans, conversely, might find it difficult to comprehend why Malaysians keep making arched references to the Republic's defense spending. Malaysians see no compelling reason why a country flush with cash is reluctant to release their returnees' CPF monies. And so forth. These affect surface tension, but need greater effort be expended on both sides to develop an easy, folksy relationship?

Ties of kinship, which both sides subscribe freely to on account of a common history, have to be rooted in nobler virtues: trust, empathy, respect, accommodation, a willingness to listen, a mutually-reinforcing humility.

Despite the commonalities that bind the neighbors, it is more pertinent to acknowledge that the two countries have drifted apart in the past three decades, as each sought its own identity based on differing world views.

Lee's important visit can be a marker to a closer convergence. He spoke of the need for younger politicians to engage each other. It is not new, but a helpful step. Here's a thought: key ministries on both sides (foreign affairs, defense, education, finance, trade, information) should alternate holding annual games. There can be a bilateral ministerial forum for each, besides the mechanism of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And it will help if more Singaporeans see much more of Malaysia beyond the lower half of Johor.

-- The Straits Times / Asia News Network