Relations with Singapore have been tense because of disputed territorial claims that involve commercial and natural resource interests. Disputes continue over deliveries of fresh water to Singapore, Singapore's land reclamation, bridge construction, and maritime boundaries in the Johor and Singapore Straits; in 2008, ICJ awarded sovereignty of Pedra Branca (Pulau Batu Puteh/Horsburgh Island) to Singapore, and Middle Rocks to Malaysia, but did not rule on maritime regimes, boundaries, or disposition of South Ledge.

Often seen as bickering siblings, relations between Malaysia and Singapore vacillate between cooperation and mistrust. Singapore and Malaysia have traditionally has strong economic, social and security ties. Singapore is almost totally dependent on Malaysia for freshwater and gets much of its food comes from Malaysia. Singapore and Malaysia are part of the Five Power Defense Agreement along with Australia, Britain and New Zealand.

Singapore businessman Bruce Gale told the International Herald Tribune, "Some Singaporeans feel themselves to be generally superior to Malaysians, and even if they don't most Malaysians think they do and that is enough." In 1997, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew angered Malaysian when he said the Malaysian city of Johor was "notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings. It does not make sense for a person who claims to be fearful for his life to go to a place live Johor. Lee later apologized for the remark.

The acrimony that once characterized Singapore's relationship with Malaysia began to change in the 1980s when the two countries adopted a course of reconciliation. The improvement in relations began when Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister of Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir achieved a personal rapport that established the tone for a rapprochement, but Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia in August 1965 continued to color the relationship. Singapore's primary concern was that Malaysia maintain a political system that tolerated multiracialism. In Singapore's view, the undermining of this political principle in Malaysia would have regional ramifications. Regional tolerance of multiracialism, for example, might be reduced if an Islamic revival in Malaysia led to the establishment of an Islamic state and the status of Malaysia's Chinese population were subsequently endangered. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Singapore was linked with Malaysia militarily through the 1971 Five-Powers Defence Arrangement, an arrangement under which the security of Singapore and Malaysia was guaranteed by Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Singapore cooperated with both Malaysia and Indonesia in maintaining the security of the Malacca and Singapore straits. Another link with Malaysia was the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC), a forum established in 1980 for the informal discussion of bilateral issues by delegations headed by each country's minister for foreign affairs. *

Singapore and Malaysia: Friendly Rivals

In 1965, Philip Bowring wrote in International Herald Tribune, “Singapore was kicked out of the Federation of Malaysia by Prime Minister Abdul Rahman, who believed Lee Kwan Yew's politicking was stirring up racial animosity. It was a stunning rebuff to the relatively young Lee, who just two years before had led the island into Malaysia in the teeth of opposition at home. But Lee and Singapore rose to the challenge of independence. The rest of Malaysia did, too. It has prospered and has remained intact, confounding skeptics who viewed mostly non-Muslim Sabah and Sarawak as unnatural additions to the Federation. So, what seemed to many a disaster, a new source of instability in a Southeast Asia still beset with Communist insurgencies and Cold War divisions, has so far had a reasonably happy result. [Source: Philip Bowring, International Herald Tribune, August 10, 2005 ^]

“The 1965 split was in practice quite gradual - the two countries had one currency until 1973 - but time has eroded the shared experiences of their British-trained elites. Malaysia and Singapore remain joined at the hip by geography and history, but their different evolutions over those 40 years are crucial to the survival of a working relationship. A few random observations may shed some light on these issues. The Malays of Malaysia should be a lot less defensive now than they were in 1965. The non-Malay percentage of its population, once more than 40 percent, has been declining because of the much higher Malay birth rate. Malaysia's overall population is growing faster than Singapore, which has one of lowest fertility rates in the world. Malaysia's economic growth may have been slower than Singapore's, but Malays now have a significant role in an economy once controlled by Chinese and foreigners. ^

“But if Malays have gained confidence, they have also drifted apart socially from non-Malays on both sides of the causeway that separates Malaysia and Singapore. Religious practices imported from Arabia and Iran, such as ubiquitous head scarves for women and enforcement of dietary and other social rules, have changed the face of Malaysia. The more sensual, fun-loving ways and artistic traditions that date from Malaysia's pre-Islamic past are increasingly hidden, in contrast to Indonesia's more relaxed, plural society. Singapore's secular puritanism, for its part, grates against the rigid Islamist aspects of Malaysia. ^

“Malaysians as a whole, however, do share a certain pride in the country's greater openness of political debate, the existence of thriving opposition parties and the degree of democracy within their governing party, which they contrast with Singapore's tightly controlled politics and treatment of opposition figures. Although ties are still numerous, non-Malay Malaysians have also drifted somewhat from their Singapore counterparts. For 20 years, Chinese in Singapore have been encouraged to speak Mandarin. In Malaysia, Hokkien and Cantonese are still the norm. ^

“Malaysian Chinese fret about the commercial and educational disadvantages they suffer in the name of creating racial equality in wealth and education, which can often degenerate into corruption. The institutionalized discrimination introduced in Malaysia after 1969 has no overt equivalent in Singapore. Yet many ethnic Chinese businessmen find it easier to make money in Malaysia, even after paying for Malay participation, than in a Singapore economy dominated by politically protected government corporations and by foreign multinationals that are often offered tax concessions. The traditional entrepreneurial talents of overseas Chinese may find more space in Malaysia than in Singapore, where diplomas and formal skills are the key to advancement. ^

“Malaysia has sacrificed some economic growth for racial wealth distribution. Singapore, with its huge compulsory savings program, has sacrificed economic freedom on the altar of investment-led growth driven by state-controlled enterprises. In both cases they have ended up, via different routes, with stock markets that are dominated by huge government-linked companies. Malaysia has borrowed many ideas from Singapore and in doing so has raised its own levels of competitiveness, for example in attracting multinationals and competing for port and aviation business. At the same time, Singapore has been forced to realize that its prosperity depends on its neighbors' success at least as much as its ability to be a player in global finance or electronics.” ^

Tensions Between Malaysia and Singapore

Water is a constant source of friction between Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysia supplies Singapore with half of its water. Once when Malaysia raised the topic of increasing water rates, its leader Mahathir dared Singapore to try stop buying water from Malaysia and survive on processed seawater, According to an agreement in effect until 2011 Malaysia was obligated to supply Singapore with water unless the two countries went to war.

Tensions between Singapore and Malaysia ebb and flow. Other sticking points between the two nations include the relocation of customs and immigration facilities for Malaysian rail passengers to Singapore, possession of a strategic 60-meter-wide islet in the Singapore Strait, and the withdrawal of Malaysia’s funds from Singapore’s pension scheme. In the late 1990s, Malaysians viewed generous interest rates on bank accounts by Singapore banks as a ploy to undermine the Malaysian economy. Malaysia has banned Singapore military planes from flying over Malaysian air space.

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation, “Since Singapore left the federation and became independent in 1965, the island republic has developed its own distinctive culture and, of course, style of negotiation. Most of all, it has become the region's richest nation and is highly confident, even self-righteous at times. Within the Asian context, when family members quarrel, it is usually kept strictly within the fold. Once it spreads it becomes hard to contain.” In the case of a water dispute “When Singapore and Malaysia decided to use the public domain - in this case the pages of the regional business daily the Asian Wall Street Journal to address their grievances and set the record straight, they deepened the wounds.” [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, July 2003 ^]

Singapore, Malaysia and Water

Singapore imports about half of the 300 million gallons of water it uses every day from Malaysia. The water comes in a pipe adjacent to the Singapore-Malaysia causeway over the kilometer- wide Johor Strait. According to an agreement in effect until 2011 Malaysia was obligated to supply Singapore with water unless the two countries went to war. The current contract expires in 2061. Kuala Lumpur wants a price increase, or to sell Singapore treated rather than raw water so it could reap more benefits from the deal. In 2003, Malaysia sold raw water to Singapore at three Malaysian sen (less than one cent) per 1000 gallons (4550 litres)

Ben Bland wrote in the Asia Sentinel, “When Singapore’s newest reservoir was opened this weekend, it was billed as the garden city’s latest leisure hub, designed to attract boaters and picnickers keen to escape the hectic pace of urban life. But the Marina Reservoir, the 15th to be built in Singapore and the first to be located in the city center, has a much more important role to play. It is the latest advance in the city-state’s drive to wean itself away from imported water from Malaysia and its concomitant political entanglements. In the process, Singapore has emerged as an unlikely world leader in water conservation, reclamation and desalination. [Source: Ben Bland, Asia Sentinel, November 6, 2008 /^]

“It wasn't long before Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first post-independence prime minister, was threatening to turn off the taps if Singapore pursued a foreign policy that was "prejudicial" to Malaysia's interests. Singapore's first post-independence leader and current Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, also said that he would have been prepared to send the troops in, if Malaysia had carried out an "act of madness" like cutting off the water. /^\

“As the imposing figures of Lee Kuan Yew and his long-time sparring partner, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, begun to fade – neither is there yet – the tensions over water have dissipated somewhat. However, with the first water agreement set to expire in 2011 and no replacement deal in sight, the Singaporean government has moved ahead at a fearsome pace with its push to reduce its dependence on imported water. /^\

“Yet despite the apparent easing of tensions between Malaysia and Singapore over recent years, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s current prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew's son, hinted at the importance of continuing to reduce the country’s reliance on Malaysian imports. "Through the concerted efforts and ingenuity of government agencies, and the full support and cooperation of the population, we have become more self-sufficient in water, and can become completely self-sufficient should we need to," he said. "We have also turned our vulnerability into a capability." /^\

Singapore-Malaysia Tussle Over Water

Relations between water-supplier Malaysia and Singapore have been strained many times in recent decades, and the two have bickered for years about the price that Singapore pays for Malaysian water. Malaysia periodically threatens to turn of the tap. In the early 2000s, Malaysia took out advertisements in newspapers, saying in effect that Singapore paid way too little for the water it used. Earlier a Malaysian general raised the possibility of putting chemical or biological poisons in Singapore’s water. “Malaysia should take full advantage of water as a strategic weapon to counter Singapore’s military advantage,” he said.

In 2003, Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation, “Malaysia and Singapore have been bickering furiously in a tit-for-tat row over water supplies. When these two decided to wash their dirty linen in public, they must have realised the ugly consequences. Most Thais view this dispute as a family spat. After all, they used to be one nation.[Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, July 2003 ^]

“When Singapore published a booklet in March titled "Water Talks, If Only It Could", Malaysia was furious. Kuala Lumpur viewed publication of the correspondence between Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on the price negotiations as an attempt to undermine Mahathir's creditability. In this case, losing face is hard to bear when occasioned by a small but richer country. Since then, the water negotiations have become a war of attrition. It is no longer about price or fairness. It is about dignity and national pride. Unfortunately, perhaps, both countries have the resources and skills to wage this kind of campaign well into the future. Not to be outdone, Malaysia published a 20-page booklet titled "Water - The Singapore-Malaysia Dispute: The Facts." It was equally damaging because it is very direct and put the blame squarely on Singapore and its alleged selfishness. To compound the insult, the government sells the booklet at the symbolic price of US$0.01, which is the same price Singapore pays per 4,540 litres of untreated water from Malaysia. Furthermore, an aggressive media campaign by Kuala Lumpur is aimed at countering the so-called "misconceptions and allegations" made by Singapore.” In one advert, Malaysia claims that while Singapore made US$174.3 million (Bt7.3 billion) in profit from the raw water supplied by Malaysia in 2001, it paid compensation to Malaysia of just $629,000. ^

“One factor that has complicated the negotiations is the persistent perception in Malaysia that Singapore is arrogant and aggressive. Singapore has argued with conviction that "international law and the sanctity of treaties voluntarily entered into by governments are the foundation of inter-state relations. Our very existence - and the existence of countries in similar situations - depends on such agreements being honoured." The island republic has made clear it doesn't mind discussing the price. But a question remains as to why Malaysia did not take the opportunity to review the water agreement and revise the price of its supplies to Singapore in 1987.” ^

Malaysia Cancels Singapore Bridge

In 2006, Malaysia announced it was abandoning the construction of a controversial bridge to Singapore. The Malaysia prime minister said the government had decided not to proceed with the project, on which it began work in January without Singapore's agreement. Malaysia also suggested the move would mean related potential deals, including one on Singapore's access to Malaysian air space, would be put on hold. [Source: BBC, April 12, 2006 ^-^]

The BBC reported: “The bridge has been a major source of tension between the two countries. Malaysia wanted to replace an ageing 1km- (0.66 mile-) long causeway between the two countries with a modern bridge, allowing ships to pass underneath it. Malaysia said this would ease congestion on the causeway, and in January said it would begin building its half of the bridge. But Singapore said it was concerned about the cost of the project and the impact on the environment.^-^

“Singapore has suggested that a decision on the bridge issue should be part of a package deal on unresolved bilateral issues. Singapore has requested military access to Malaysia's airspace, something Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi says ordinary Malaysians have opposed. The sale of sand to Singapore for a land reclamation project has also been under discussion. But Mr Badawi said in a statement that "all negotiations relating to the bridge" would now be halted. He said the decision was made taking into consideration "the voice and sentiment of the people, particularly over sand and airspace". The Singaporean Foreign Ministry issued a one-line response to the move. "We are surprised at this sudden decision when negotiations for a full bridge were still ongoing," it said. The move by Malaysia is likely to strain ties, analysts say, leaving the two neighbours in a stalemate over long-standing disputes. ^-^

International Court Rules for Singapore on Islet Dispute with Malaysia

In May 2008, AFP reported: Malaysia “bowed to a ruling by the International Court of Justice that affirmed Singapore's sovereignty over a tiny but strategic island that caused a 28-year dispute between the neighbours. "It is a win-win situation," Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim told reporters after the United Nations' highest court handed down a majority ruling on the future of the uninhabited isle the size of half a football field. Malaysia claimed original title to the island it knows as Pulau Batu Puteh, while Singapore, which calls it Pedra Branca, argued that sovereignty had passed to it tacitly. Singapore operated the Horsburgh Lighthouse on the granite island, whose names mean "white rock" in Malay and Portuguese, for more than 130 years without protest from its neighbour. [Source: Agence France-Presse, May 24, 2008 ++]

"The court, by 12 votes to four, finds that sovereignty ... belongs to the Republic of Singapore," Judge Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh said in handing down judgment. The court found that the Malaysian sultanate-turned province of Johor had held the original title to the island, but had taken "no action at all" regarding Singapore's operation of a lighthouse there for more than a century. "The court concludes ... that by 1980 sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh had passed to Singapore," Khasawneh said. ++

“The island is in a strategically important position, 7.7 nautical miles (14 kilometres) off Johor on the eastern approach to the Singapore Strait from the South China Sea. The dispute arose when Singapore protested in 1980 against a new Malaysian map of its maritime boundaries in which Kuala Lumpur claimed the islet. Years of bilateral talks failed to resolve the matter and the parties agreed to seek a ruling by the United Nations' highest court. ++

“Also asked to rule on the island's two rocky outcrops, the court found that sovereignty of Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia, while that of South Ledge had yet to be determined as it fell within overlapping territorial waters. The court said it had not been mandated by the parties to draw a line through their territorial waters to determine the position of South Ledge, a rock formation visible only at low tide. Both countries welcomed the ruling, with Malaysia describing its title over Middle Rocks as a victory. "We said we would create a special commission to implement the ICJ ruling, perhaps it could also establish the status of South Ledge," said Rais. "I want to say the status of all three rocks will remain as it is now." ++

“In its argument to the court, Malaysia had claimed original title to Pulau Batu Puteh, contending that "Singapore's presence on the island for the sole purpose of constructing and maintaining a lighthouse there ... is insufficient to vest sovereignty in it." Singapore had argued that while still under the British rule, it took lawful possession of Pedra Branca from the mid-19th century when construction of the lighthouse started. ++

“Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar said Friday his country was "very pleased" with the outcome. "Singapore wanted the sovereignty over Pedra Branca and obtained it. Of course we would be happier if we had had all three islands but what is very important is that the dispute is now resolved." As the highest judicial organ of the United Nations, The Hague-based ICJ settles differences between member states. Its rulings are final and without appeal but the court has no means of enforcing them.” ++

Singapore Pledges to Help Malaysia on Johor Project

In May 2007, Singapore agreed to work with Malaysia in a $105 billion development of Malaysia's southern Johor state. Jalil Hamid of Reuters wrote: In 2006 “Malaysia unveiled an ambitious two-decade blueprint to harness mostly private capital to turn 2,200 square km (850 square miles) of the state into an industrial and tourism zone, and state capital Johor Baru into a new Asian boom town. "Singapore has made an assessment and decided it is fundamentally good for us if this project takes off," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after meeting his Malaysian counterpart on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi. "It will complement Singapore," he said, adding that the project would help Singapore's manufacturing, services and tourism sectors. [Source: Jalil Hamid, Reuters, May 15, 2007]

“The Johor plan implies heavy investment from neighboring Singapore, which lies about a km (less than a mile) away from Johor Baru, but Lee said earlier there were "mixed signals" from Malaysia about the extent to which Singapore investors were welcome. Many Malaysians, particularly in run-down Johor, are deeply suspicious of Singapore and some resent the economic success of their smaller but richer neighbor. However, Lee said after a two-hour breakfast meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that the pair had agreed to form a joint ministerial panel to ensure cooperation in the so-called Iskandar Development Region (IDR).

Lee referred to the elder Abdullah by an affectionate nickname, Pak Lah or "Uncle Lah", at a joint news conference. "I have suggested to Pak Lah, who agreed, that we should set up a ministerial committee from both sides to oversee the joint cooperation in the IDR," Lee said, adding the panel could look into issues like joint tourism promotion and access to the zone. "I see the position of the IDR vis-a-vis to Singapore is like that of Hong Kong and Shenzhen," Abdullah said, referring to the one-time British colony and a neighboring Chinese city. Abdullah added that the plan could be a catalyst for greater Southeast Asian growth.

The Iskandar blueprint, unveiled by Abdullah calls for a high-tech park, logistics and industrial precincts, educational park, regional hospitals, marina, waterside villas, theme parks and exclusive, gated residential communities. It also envisages passport-free access to parts of the zone for Singaporeans.

Khoo Kay Peng, a political analyst, said the deal could open a new chapter in their testy ties. "The IDR will be the icing on the cake. Singapore can use the IDR as a test bed for a lot of Singapore's manufacturing operations," Khoo said. Lee and Abdullah were holding bilateral talks for the first time in three years. Despite an initial thaw in relations in 2004, when both leaders were new in their jobs, and a surge in cross-border mergers, old disputes continued to strain ties. The two nations have quarreled for decades over the price Singapore pays for its Malaysian water supplies, over railway land, air space, and Malaysia's desire to replace the causeway that links Singapore to Johor with a road-and-rail bridge.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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