Friday December 17, 2004

New leaders and the winds of change

By Teo Hwee Nak
Deputy News Editor

SO it's back to the negotiating table for Singapore and Malaysia.
A slew of announcements about cultural and education bilateral cooperation came hot on the heels of the meeting on Monday between Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Malaysian Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, so it would be easy to get caught up in the feeling that all is well again between the two neighbours.
But take a good look at what's on the table and you will realise the only thing both sides have agreed on is to resume talks.
Resuming talks has never been the tricky issue, the devil lies in the details. The leaders agreed that any solution "must bring about mutually beneficial benefits".
In other words, while the negotiations have moved away from the "package" concept, the give-and-take principle that has in theory guided negotiations in the past years remains.
This raises the question of how much one country really has to "give" and stands to "take".
Malaysia wants an upward revision of the price of water she is selling to Singapore.
It also wants Singapore to release the Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings of Malaysians who used to work here.
Having started work on the new Customs, Immigration and Quarantine complex and bridge, a project estimated to cost RM1.1 billion ($4.7 million), getting Singapore to agree to replace the Causeway with a bridge would also be of utmost importance to Malaysia.
Then there is the joint development of railway lands in Singapore. On this, Singapore has always stood by the Points of Agreement (POA) signed by the two governments in 1990.
Under the POA, Malaysia's Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway station was to have moved out of the Tanjong Pagar station to Bukit Timah, with the option of an alternative site in Woodlands, by 2001.
With this move, three parcels of railway land at Tanjong Pagar, Kranji and Woodlands would be developed jointly, on a 60-40 basis, by Malaysia and Singapore, while the rest of the railway lands would be returned to Singapore.
The 2001 deadline has passed and KTM is still at Tanjong Pagar. As spelled out in the POA, the Woodlands option is no longer available, which leaves KTM with only Bukit Timah for its new station.
Malaysia has disputed the deadline and also asked for additional parcels of land to be included in the deal a demand Singapore has no reason to accede to unless there's something it can gain.
Just what would Singapore like to gain in this round of negotiations?
Actually, there's just one: Use of Malaysian airspace by Singapore's airforce.
But Singapore has managed to live without this for years. It would be a good-to-have convenience, much like having that sheltered walkway is a bonus, but it would depend on the cost.
Looking at it pragmatically, a bridge whether crooked or straight is of no benefit to Singapore.
The $500-million cost to Singapore is daunting enough. Add to that the economic implications for Singapore and it is clear that it would not be in our interests to agree to the bridge.
One reason why Malaysia is so keen on the bridge, in the words of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is to "facilitate the transportation of cargo from Pasir Gudang to the Tanjung Pelepas port".
The latter is, of course, in competition with PSA Corporation, Singapore's main port operator.
The railway land and water issues are bound by legal contracts between the two governments.
Singapore's stand on these matters has always been clear and firm and it is unlikely to change unless there are clear benefits to be reaped.
What's more, while Singapore used to have the weaker hand because of our dependence on Malaysia for water, we are now set to be self-sufficient in water by 2061, the year the second water supply agreement with Malaysia expires. Since we no longer need to renew the first water agreement, which ends in 2011, we are no longer the underdog at the bargaining table.
It would seem that if the new talks are to make headway, it is Malaysia which has to make some concessions.
Of course, what any country can agree to in these kinds of negotiations will depend on the political implications the impact on the electorate, upholding national pride and the absolute sovereignty of the nation, for example.
Will we see real progress in the months ahead?
Interestingly, in 1990, then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was about to take over from then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had asked the latter to "settle old accounts as (he) prefers to open a new era unfettered by old thinking".
That was why the POA was signed the hope that the railway issue would be resolved and filed away.
It remains on the table today.
Now, Mr Abdullah has been sending out good vibes, and instead of arguing via the media, leaders from both countries have agreed to talk to each other directly. Compared to the time when the word "war" was being muttered in some quarters across the Causeway, we're now off to a good start in our neighbourly negotiations.
Let's hope things really have changed.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"