Singapore redefines braggadocio

By Tunku Abdul Aziz, The Malaysian Insider

FOUR years ago, on 18 October 2006, I wrote an opinion piece from my 30th floor office in the UN Secretariat, New York, for the New Sunday Times. The title, Singapore is simply a neighbour too far, I thought fairly described my assessment of the state of our relations with neighbouring Singapore. It upset a great many Singaporeans; it also made many realise that “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

A Singaporean behaves too much like an insecure lover, forever seeking assurance that she is the fairest of them all and that she is much admired and loved. The insatiable craving for praise and adoration would, in normal circumstances, point to a serious flaw in the national character. This much I remember from the Child Psychology lectures I attended in college all those long years ago. How else can you explain their supercilious behaviour towards us, the Japanese and Indians, all falling into the category of “stupid?”

Singapore is not an unknown quantity to us in Malaysia. In a sense it is of us, but not part of us. Forget the so-called historical ties that are supposed to underpin our relations because they amount to nothing in practice.

To view them through rose-tinted spectacles as is our wont would distort even further a relationship that has never been known for its convergence of views on even the most pedestrian of issues. Rather, it has always had all the makings and attributes of a potentially protracted and acrimonious future.

Singapore has no time for sentiments; emotion is anathema to its national make-up. So, do not use that tack because it simply will not wash with it. Singapore is brutally clinical and rarely takes prisoners in any engagement with it.

Being small is not always easy, especially when you are trying to flex your muscles and punch above your weight. To be constantly reminded that you are nothing more than a little red dot on the face of the earth as President B.J. Habibi of Indonesia once did, somewhat insensitively, must touch some raw nerves, especially for a country that can justifiably claim a string of successes on so many fronts.

Now, even the Minister Mentor has doubts if his creation is really a country. For a “country” that has yet to establish an identity, Singapore is overbearingly obnoxious.

In our dealings with Singapore, we must never take it at face value. Let us disabuse ourselves quickly of the notion that sentiments and goodwill will cut any ice with it. We have to adopt an equally cold, clinical and legalistic approach, as it always does.

Think how often we have ended up drawing the proverbial short straw in our negotiations with Singapore? The most celebrated was undoubtedly the MSA (Malaysia-Singapore Airline) divorce from which we came away with barely the shirt on the back. Singapore has always made it clear that it has no time for the sort of sentimental nonsense we wallow in, and operates simply on the basis of exacting maximum advantage, the pound of flesh, it can wangle out of any deal, no matter what.

Based on past experience with it, and in order to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness, such as being accused of bullying a small neighbour and of other unfair and malevolent behaviour, we should, as far as possible, leave Singapore to revel alone in its glorious splendour. In short, it is a neighbour too far, with apologies to A Bridge Too Far.

It has become apparent that it is simply not worth the effort to cultivate this uncultivable bad mouthing neighbour of ours. You cannot ever be right with it because it is never wrong. Winning some and losing some is not a thing that sits well with it. Winners take all, much like Mahathir, is a strategy that appears to be well entrenched and suited to its national psyche.

Our relations with a neighbour such as Singapore, with its propensity for, and unseemly preoccupation with, scoring a debating point or two at every turn, must be circumscribed by the most formal and correct behaviour on our part.