The future direction of Malaysia-Singapore bilateral ties will become clearer when Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad starts his working visit to the island republic today.
Bilateral discussions between Dr Mahathir and his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, which will take place on a few occasions over the next four days, will set the tone on Putrajaya’s views of its neighbour.
Dr Mahathir, accompanied by wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, will be in the republic on an official visit. He will also attend the 33rd Asean Summit and Related Summits.
Analysts expect Dr Mahathir and Lee’s discussions to focus on the cheap, raw water selling price to Singapore, the “crooked bridge” and exit clauses of a few mega projects involving Malaysian government-linked investment companies in the republic.
But some observers have not ruled out that the world’s oldest elected leader will spring a few surprises if history is any guide.
The world’s oldest serving state leader seldom fails to mince his words when he speaks about lopsided agreements inked between Malaysia and Singapore whether during his first term as PM in 1981 to 2003 or after he was elected again in May this year.
His comments have irked the republic’s leaders. But, Dr Mahathir is not expected to change his ways when it comes to the country’s national interests.
Dr Mahathir ordered the much-sensationalised high-speed rail (HSR) project linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to be suspended just weeks after he led Pakatan Harapan to a historic victory in the May 9 general election. The Economic Affairs Ministry has been instructed to conduct an in-depth study of the project.
The suspension of the HSR project is a reality check for Singapore. It demonstrates Dr Mahathir’s agenda in shaping the ties between both nations.
Ties between Malaysia and Singapore warmed after Dr Mahathir left Putrajaya in 2003. A more accommodating approach by Dr Mahathir’s two predecessors led to a closer understanding between both countries, a stark contrast to the time during his leadership.
The business community, however, said the friendly approach had failed to bring any benefit to Malaysia.
The new alliance that ended Barisan Nasional’s 61-year rule of the country has vowed to renegotiate the water supply agreement with the republic.
Dr Mahathir said the 1962 water agreement is lopsided and does not fit the current economic environment.
The water agreement, which expires in 2061, allows Singapore to purchase 250 million gallons of raw water daily at the price of three sen per every 1,000 gallons (3,785.4 litres). Malaysia buys back a portion of the treated water at 50 sen for every 1,000 gallons from Singapore.
In an interview with The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) in August this year, Dr Mahathir indicated that the government had not ruled out the disposal of the state-owned funds’ investments in Singapore.
“And some, of course, we will just withdraw and sell off the company or even the assets of the company. We have some investments in this Iskandar (Malaysia) project. We also have some properties in Singapore and there are several other companies,” he had said then.
TMR also reported that Khazanah Nasional Bhd could dispose of its 60% stake in M+S Pte Ltd to joint-venture (JV) partner Temasek Holdings Pte Ltd. Talks of stake sales were also associated with another JV company, Pulau Indah Ventures Sdn Bhd, a 50:50 tie-up between the two investment entities.
The disposal, said Dr Mahathir, would allow the state-owned fund to monetise its non-strategic assets and subsequently deliver higher dividends to the government.
M+S was established in June 2011 as Khazanah pushed to be involved in property development instead of just being an equity holder.
The JV company planned to develop four land parcels in Marina South and two land parcels in Ophir-Rochor as part of the massive Marina One and DUO integrated developments. The two joint projects have an estimated gross development value of S$11 billion (RM32.75 billion).
Khazanah and Temasek are also undertaking joint developments in Iskandar Malaysia through Pulau Indah Ventures.The company is involved in integrated wellness projects Afiniti Medini and Avira.
All eyes will focus on Dr Mahathir’s third official visit to a neighbouring Asean country. It could be rocky at times, but in the changing and challenging global climate, Malaysia and Singapore will only benefit from their strategic alliances instead of tit-for-tat countermeasures.