Sunday, 13 June , 2004

Reflections on Malaysia/ Singapore

HAMISH ROBERTSON: The highway that runs from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore is now a modern multi-lane modern freeway. It's the smooth north-south link between two countries that still have a bumpy relationship. Our Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Graeme Dobell, cruised the highway down Malaysia's west coast last week, bringing back memories of a very different road when he was our South East Asia Correspondent 15 years ago.

GRAEME DOBELL: When I used to drive the Singapore to Kuala Lumpur road in the late 80s and early 90s it took more than five hours dodging huge logging trucks and half-trucks piled high with that most pungent of all fruit, the durian. Now it's all multi-lane freeway, a comfortable cruise in just over three hours.
Whatever the ease of the north-south drive, though, the tensions linger. On the hamburger measure, the two neighbours are doing fine.
The American journalist, Tom Friedman, came up with a new International relations theory two countries that both eat at McDonalds should never go to war, because the presence of the golden arches is evidence of a commitment to globalisation and the middle class dream. Unfortunately for Tom, the hamburger rule took a hit when NATO went to war with Yugoslavia.
Still, you can eat McDonalds in Malaysia and Singapore and both are firmly on the road to middle class dreams. But the new Dobell rule of cross border friction is based on the hire car.
If you can't drive a hire car from one neighbouring country to another, they've still got problems. And try as I might, there was no way I could get that hire car from Malaysia into Singapore.
So it was that I dropped off my car in the booming Malaysian city of Johor Baru and rode the last kilometre across the Causeway in a taxi. One other change to the old days I went through Singapore passport control with a disposable plastic thermometer under my tongue. SARS means they take your temperature at the border as well as your travel details.
At the security conferences in both countries, we heard the old and the new in the leadership game. In Singapore, it was Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warning about terrorism.
It was typical Goh professional and low key, even if the words were strong. Living in Singapore in 1990, I wrote a lot about the leadership handover by the founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, with many anticipating that Goh Chok Tong would be a short term leader, keeping the seat warm for a couple of years before being replaced by LKY's oldest son, Lee Hsien Loong.
Well, more than 13 years later, the handover of the beloved country to the beloved son is about to happen. Mr Goh has long thrown off the short term leader label; LKY has proved he can plan very long term.
The speech in Kuala Lumpur by Malaysia's new Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, was an example of singing from the Mahathir song-book but with a kinder, gentler tune. During his 22 years at the top, Dr M assaulted the decadent West in the most colourful of terms.
The man who took over as Malaysia's leader last year, talked instead about how "we" the international community face problems "we" have to solve. And Australia is no longer on the KL blacklist. Abdullah Badawi has told everyone they can talk to Australia again. Plans for bilateral free trade negotiations are in the wind.
And the moment I realised things really have changed: I was standing in the foyer after the speech, when Badawi strolled by shaking hands. I have to report that the Prime Minister of Malaysia shook hands with an Australian journalist in Kuala Lumpur and there was no bolt of lightning. It never happened when Dr M was running the show.
HAMISH ROBERTSON: That report by our Foreign Affairs Correspondent Graeme Dobell.

Parent site: "The World At Your Fingertips"