Singapore: Love-Hate Relations


James Chin

Relations between Singapore and Malaysia are courteous at best and plain nasty at worst. Most of the time, these two neighbours, bounded by a common history, simply tolerate each other as geography has forced them to live as neighbours.

The Malay elite in Malaysia do not like Singapore, in the main, for the following reasons:

  • Singapore was least affected by the regional crisis and the Singapore dollar is twice the value of the ringgit. Singapore constantly reminds Malaysia that it is superior in terms of economic performance, education, its reputation as a corrupt-free government, military and technology.
  • Singapore is ruled by the Chinese, thus giving the Malaysian Chinese a place to look up to. More important, it gives the best educated Malaysian Chinese a place to migrate to. Singapore is also the ‘nest ’” where billions owned by Malaysian Chinese are kept for safekeeping.
  • Singapore should have never been allowed to leave the federation in 1965.
  • Lee Kuan Yew runs down Malaysia indirectly by attributing all of Malaysia’s social and economic ills to the discriminatory pro-bumiputera policy pursued by the Malaysian government.
  • The Singapore Malays are badly treated by the Singaporean government.
  • Singapore constantly undermines the Malaysian economy by competing directly or using its financial centre status to divert large sums of money away from the Malaysian financial system.
  • The boast and open admission by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) that they have forward defence capabilities. The Malaysian side takes ’forward capabilities’ as meaning the SAF moving to secure the Southern Malaysian states such as Malacca and Johor to be used as a buffer zone in times of war.

    Singapore, on the other hand, is annoyed with Malaysia, amongst others, because:

  • For years Malaysia has been trying to build an alliance with Indonesia (‘alay brotherhood’) to ‘restrain’ Singapore.
  • Reminding Singapore constantly that its wealth was built mainly on Malaysian resources and the Malaysian economy.
  • Reminding Singapore that it cannot even ‘take a shower’ since the water supply in Singapore is supplied by Johor, the Malaysian state across the causeway.
  • Running stories in the Malaysian media that the Singaporean Malays are treated as ‘second class’ citizens
  • Attacking Singapore’s meritocracy policy for creating a ‘soulless’ nation.
  • Poking fun at Singapore’s super-clean city reputation, reminding Malaysians that they are lucky to live in a country where throwing litter or not flushing a toilet does not automatically lead to a fine or community work.
  • Making snide remarks about Singapore’s ‘dynastic politics, that is, Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsieng Loong’s expected succession to Goh Chok Tong as Prime Minister.
  • Reinforcing popular ‘anti-Singapore’ prejudices like giving prominence to stories about Singaporeans misbehaving while in Malaysia: for example, Singaporean drivers regularly breaking the speed limits in Malaysia because they are afraid to do the same in the island republic; Singaporean drivers not paying speed fines; behaving rudely to Malaysians because they have money. (Many Singaporeans behave differently on the Malaysia side since they instantly double their purchasing power due to the strength of the Singapore dollar).
  • Reminding Singapore that Malaysia can live without Singapore but not the reverse.

    Recent irritants have included Lee Kuan Yew’s suggestion that the Malaysian education system and administration lead to communalism. Another was the seminar held in Malaysia to discuss a book on the marginality of the Malay community, “The Singapore Dilemma”. It was published in 1998 by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, a niece of Singapore’s former President Yusof Ishak and daughter of former PAP MP and Senior Minister of State Rahim Ishak.

    Continuing irritants are the freeze on withdrawing the Singapore Central Providence Fund (CPF) contributions of Malaysians working in Singapore until retirement, and Singapore’s unilateral decision to move the Tanjung Pagar Railway Station to Woodlands.

    All these contribute to constant tensions in the bilateral relationship.

    WATCHPOINT: More nasty rhetoric about the other can be expected from both sides. Yet for all the rhetoric, deep down inside both sides know that this is a love-hate relationship and tolerance is the key. Both sides recognise that there is no alternative.


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