Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob’s official visit to Malaysia, on the back of the recently concluded visit by PM Anwar Ibrahim to the republic, all signal a common intent and geopolitical concerns of both countries in facing renewed security and economic threats.
Throughout the 58 years of diplomatic relations, ties between the two have gone through ups and downs, swayed by different preferential policy options by different leaders and contextual realities. Predominant parameters to the bilateral importance remain security and economic in nature, further reinforced by threat and risk settings on the ground that require integration and systemic interdependence on one another’s capacity, whether by default or forced.
Despite the conventional diplomatic projection and show of intent that always revolve on economic cooperation, people to people exchanges and enhancement of shared interests including green energy and digital economy, and social cohesiveness, the underlying critical factor remains one that is geopolitical and security in nature. Chief to this pursuit will be in securing the ultimate interests of both countries, which remain concerns on security and assurances in both traditional and non-traditional spectres.
Singapore wanted a stronger ASEAN as it indicated throughout the visits, in working more cohesively to promote the region’s stability and security amidst the deteriorating security climate.
The republic has always been cognisant of its geopolitical reality and vulnerability, a fact further underlined by the twin implications of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine that have ravaged the resilience of the supply chain and in creating a scramble for food and energy security.
Devoid of the most critical basic resources which are key to its survival, Singapore sees Malaysia as the most crucial player in the arena of ensuring food, water and resource security that must be meticulously nurtured to ensure the least capacity of supply assurance at least in the medium term. This is reflected in the strategic moves to systematically enhance ties with Kuala Lumpur and the willingness to tone down the responses to the Pulau Batu Puteh conundrum.
Apart from urgent yearning for assurances in basic resources, the predominant threat remains the hard power threat that is engulfing both players and the region, where both face the same common threat that both realize is way bigger than the current thorny disputes between them.
This alone compelled both countries to supersede the bilateral sensitive issues that have plagued the ease of their integration of approaches and also hampered their future potential in bolstering their joint deterrence capacity.
Malaysia remains more important for Singapore’s long term survival in many fronts, and Singapore’s cost benefit calculations concluded that continuing to harp on sensitive disputes including Pulau Batu Puteh will only risk diminishing returns from a potentially more irritated Malaysia. In short, Singapore’s survival concerns vastly supersede the geopolitical returns from this issue, what more with Malaysia playing a central role to its survival calculations. Thus, it will want to capture the goodwill of Kuala Lumpur in reaping the security benefits.
The most critical factor in the ties moving forward is the conventional security threat and changing geopolitical domain that both are facing. Singapore remains ahead in strategic calculations, being wise and pragmatic in its threat orientation and future long term agenda setting that is not strictly tied by past norms of sheer neutrality, unlike Malaysia.
It is both realistic and future driven, knowing that it has to rely on external powers for security and survival, and it needs the US and the West as the core defence support while ASEAN is banked on as a supplementary leadership role and conflict prevention mechanism.
Its long game in its strategic preparations is evident in its calculations in seeing China’s long term staying power both in economic and military might are not guaranteed, with internal setbacks and cracks that threaten to derail consistency and resilience. Singapore has thus played the long game in placing more of its bet on the West, wary of Beijing’s slowing economy and future unpredictability in building a regional or global order that is uncertain in its direction. Singapore calculates that it is best to remain with the established order, and further taking into account the strategic moves by Beijing in opening up more alternative trade routes that will sideline Singapore’s geostrategic importance.
Through BRI and other tie ups, new trade routes being pursued that include the Sunda Strait, railways,ports and land connections in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East and the prospect of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic all potentially would gradually supersede the importance and reliance on the Malacca Strait. This would potentially diminish the economic and geostrategic advantage of Singapore, on top of other moves by neighbouring players including Indonesia with its Nusantara strategic card. All these are projected to further diminish Singapore’s regional voice, and is now scrambling to maintain its presence and role.
Economically, it will still cast its reliance on China in the near future but the economic transition and the need to break away from its current economic maturity trap would render Singapore to be still aligned to the value based and principle driven system of stability, predictability and consistency that is now sustained by the US and the West.
Singapore received the positive implications from China’s slowdown and the crisis of confidence in Hong Kong’s economic and financial dominance, being at the receiving end of the exodus from both. It is ready to project a future region that is not fully China centric, and will try to preserve all the current foundational indicators of what makes Singapore globally respected as a stable and matured financial centre and economic player in the first place, which rest on a stable rules based order.
Being strategic and pragmatic, Singapore is assiduous enough to balance both and would avoid antagonising Beijing where it still looks to them as an important economic lifeline, but will depend on the West for survival and long term resilience.
Singapore knows that any real time conflict in the region or a potential full fallout from a Taiwanese invasion will eventually mean a mobilisation of US forces from the bases the US is currently accessing and using in Singapore. This will mean an eventual dragging of Singapore into the conflict either directly or indirectly, and will risk being seen by Beijing as a threat during wartime. Thus, whatever way it is in the future, in the eventuality of a full scale war or conflict, Singapore will be drawn into the opposing path with China regardless, and various strategies are drawn to prepare for this eventuality.
Singapore remains the perfect connecting dot and vital chain link for the West’s containment capacity, linking it from Northern Australia with America’s growing military presence and base there all the way to the recently agreed return of US presence in the Philippines in Subic Bay and other bases.Singapore remains a sitting duck to external threat, and therefore sees AUKUS as a timely needed deterrence measure, and would be looking to further deepen Western security assurance and alliance.
Malaysia should capitalize on this, and treat Singapore as a complementing force of deterrence, where greater common threats should transcend normal security and disputes with Singapore. The reality remains that any security threat or fallout in either Malaysia or Singapore will have a direct impact on one another, regardless of how much one tries to shield or to maneuver carefully. Singapore holds the key to attracting further defensive and security assurances from the West, and providing integrated capacity with sustaining arguments on shared interlinked vulnerabilities will inject further security assurances and lifelines. All these, are of course bound by Malaysia’s readiness and strategic future plan in how it will manage its defence and security approach in how it will face the probability of a full blown conflict in the South China Sea or in Taiwan, now increasingly being seen as a matter of when, not if.
Singapore and the West are also wary of Malaysia falling into the domino effect during a real time war, and will need Malaysia to be secure as a bankable first line of protection and in securing Singapore, reminiscent of WW2 setting in which the British concentrated its last stance capacity in Singapore in thwarting the onslaught of the Japanese that ran rampage in the peninsula in a short time. hi
There is no hiding that both still harbour mistrust and wariness on one another’s strategic security and power pursuit especially in protecting oneself from one another’s potential threat of escalation. However, this remains remote and any depth or potentiality of this will remain minimal as compared to the overwhelming returns of bolstering both sides’ joint interoperability and deterrence capacity in various domains, particularly economic and security domains.
The Five Powers Defence Arrangement (FPDA) remains an ever more strategic and vital tool to integrate better understanding and joint togetherness in repelling common threats for both Singapore and Malaysia. Mutual mistrust, wariness and lingering sensitive disputes must be wisely managed and reduced to build more in depth and pervasive security interdependence and joint deterrence capacity.
Malaysia is relied upon as a crucial avenue for right human capital in fuelling the demands of Singapore’s new service economy, and will continue to be consistent source of the lure of high paying jobs with assured living standard and safety which have managed to be a magnet to Malaysian professionals for decades and at most times at Malaysia’s brain drain expense.
Kuala Lumpur is also vital as Singapore’s second front in its social progression and satisfaction aspect, in providing its citizens the needed psychological opening in breaking from its almost robotic and systematic working and lifestyle environment through social and tourism activities, a growing facet that both realise is crucial as a fundamental factor in the ties.
Singapore needs the voice of Malaysia in further strengthening regional leadership and its expertise in counterterrorism capacity in helping the republic to confront the issue head on with better preventive capability.
For Malaysia, Singapore is crucial predominantly for economic importance, being its second largest trading partner and vice versa. Increasingly however, the republic is gaining importance in spheres of security and geopolitical calculations that will have a direct impact on Kuala Lumpur’s security climate. Malaysia can also benefit from the spillover effects of Singapore’s soft power sway and its ability to capitalize on its importance to the Western world.
Singapore is increasingly crucial in other domains, particularly on its established security and geopolitical advantage and being seen as the strongest beacon of Western deterrence capacity and allied partnership together with Manila. Having the advantage of a vibrant and matured international financial system and established trade point which served as a global magnet of growth and connectivity, it will serve Malaysia wonders in more integrated and cascading impact should both increase joint capacity and reduce mistrust and wariness for the bigger threat picture.
It is high time both countries reorient their approaches to one another, and to look at each other as critically vital partners in facing shared common threats in the long term setting. Whichever way it might go, both are too intertwined to be free from one another’s failed approach or miscalculations in its own security or economic pursuit and agenda. It is finally time to break free from past trap and policy dogma and to start to reduce and sideline any mistrust and to transcend present disputes in order to project a united front. Both must capitalise on each other’s unique strength, position and advantage, for both are facing a race against time to transform their economic direction and their national survival and interests, of which the interdependence of both countries remains indispensable.
[Image courtesy: Prime Minister’s Office, Malaysia]
*Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in the University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.