S’pore, Malaysia ‘must discard historical and racial baggage’

SINGAPORE and Malaysia should work together to put aside the historical and racial baggage that has influenced bilateral ties and move towards a “special relationship”, Malaysia’s Defence Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said last night.

“It seems to me that one of the root problems in Malaysia-Singapore relations is that we all tend to carve out our perceptions towards one another, based on Malay-Chinese racial and ethnic preconceptions,” he said.

“It is time that we move away from such thinking and move forward in our relations,” he said, adding that the basis for this should be the fact that Malaysia and Singapore were “two sovereign nations”.

He was speaking at the annual dinner of the Harvard Club of Singapore, an organisation of Harvard University alumni.

He said Malaysia saw its ties with Singapore as one of its “most important relationships in the region”.

“What we do in Malaysia will have implications for you and vice versa,” he said. “Not many of us realise how close we are and how important it is for us to remain close.”

The “fundamentals” were present in Malaysia-Singapore relations, he stressed in his 30-minute speech to nearly 200 guests, which included Singapore’s Defence Minister, Dr Lee Boon Yang. He said that economic relations had become the cornerstone of the relationship.

To show how close the two countries were economically, he said Malaysia’s exports to Singapore last year was about 21 per cent of its total exports.

“Although we are competitors, as our economies do not necessarily complement each other, the nature of the competition is benign and healthy, and not adversarial.”

He said: “We are inter-dependent and our future, be it political, economic or security, is inextricably-linked.”

Referring to the security ties between the two countries, he said they were “strong”, in the form of bilateral arrangements and multilateral exercises.

He told reporters later that he would raise proposals for greater defence cooperation with Singapore with Dr Lee when the Singapore minister visited Kuala Lumpur soon.

During a question-and-answer session that followed his speech, Datuk Najib elaborated on the historical and emotional baggage that weighed both countries down: “There is suspicion of an ulterior motive in whatever we do, however simple it may be.

“For example, reservists go to Malaysia on holiday. We welcome them as tourists.

“But when they go scuba diving, some of our military personnel might think they are snooping. But the fact of the matter is that they are just tourists in Malaysia and we have to dismiss such reports.”

Another example was Singapore’s concern whenever the Malaysian Armed Forces held bilateral military exercises in Johor, close to Singapore.

“These are simple things which show that such emotional baggages exist,” he said.

Asked whether the Singapore Armed Forces could train on Malaysian soil, he said this would only arise when sufficient confidence and trust was built between the two countries.

He ended on an optimistic note: “Let us move to a higher plane and to a new basis of relationship.”

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