Malaysia, S'pore and two views on the last 50 years

Malaysia, S'pore and two views on the last 50 years
Former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi (left) and Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad at the launching book titled " Malaysia Singapore Fifty Years of Contentions 1965-2015" at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, Kuala Lumpur.

I have known Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad, the former KSU (the equivalent of our permanent secretary) of Wisma Putra, for more than 30 years. We first met in 1984 when he was the deputy chief of mission at the Malaysian Embassy in Washington, DC and I was a newly minted first secretary at our embassy.

In the subsequent decades our paths often crossed - the world of South-east Asian diplomacy is not large and Malaysia is our closest neighbour - and on occasion I worked with him in ASEAN and on some bilateral matters. So when I heard that he had written a book on Malaysia-Singapore relations, I hastened to procure a copy.

The content was as I expected: a very journeyman-like effort. There were no significant errors of fact on bilateral issues that I could detect. Mr Kadir is nothing if not a consummate professional, and contrary to popular belief, good diplomats of every country generally tell the truth and stick to the facts, although there is no obligation to always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

In any case, all the most important facts have long been placed in the public domain, mainly by Singapore in answers to parliamentary questions or by the release of documents on water talks more than a decade ago. A reader expecting dramatic new revelations will be disappointed.

Mr Kadir's interpretations of the facts are of course different from the interpretations that I or other Singapore diplomats would have placed on the same facts. But that is only to be expected, and I am not inclined to quibble with him.

A different interpretation cannot change the most important fact of all: On almost every bilateral issue the book deals with - water, Pedra Blanca, the bridge and land reclamation - the outcome was not one that Malaysia had set out to achieve.

Diplomats try to promote their countries' interests. So it is entirely understandable that in the twilight of his career, a distinguished Malaysian diplomat would want to place his version of events on the record and vent a little. It would be churlish to deny him even this satisfaction.

I will only take issue with his conclusion, encapsulated in the title of his book and the thread running through it, that it has been "Fifty Years Of Contentions". Of course, Malaysian and Singapore interests often clashed. Relations between neighbours are always more complicated than relations between distant countries. But the interests of our countries have at least as often coincided.

Diplomacy is not, or at least ought not to be, a zero-sum game. Nor should any one aspect of any relationship be allowed to colour the entire relationship.

Although we contended over bilateral matters, Malaysia and Singapore have simultaneously worked together very well on other issues, for example as we did in ASEAN and the United Nations during the decade-long struggle in the 1980s - which coincided with some tense episodes in bilateral relations - to prevent a fait accompli in Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia. We still cooperate closely in ASEAN.

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