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Dr. Moan — Malaysia Can't Be Treated Seriously With a Complainer in Charge
Something truly amazing happened last Thursday (or so it seemed). Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad announced approval for the Rail Transit System between Johor and Singapore. Malaysia, he said, would proceed with the project!
...it also requested it to be an LRT not an MRT system, ostensibly to reduce construction costs - in violation of the earlier agreement signed by former PM, Najib Razak. It stipulated that RTS would be using trains, signalling system, communication system and Integrated Supervisory Control System from the newly constructed Thomson MRT Line in Singapore, to facilitate operations.
In other words, Malaysia is actually attempting to derail yet another joint project with Singapore, while pretending to have good intentions.
M like Moaning
Mahathir is a serial contrarian. There is probably not a single thing that anybody has ever proposed that the Malaysian PM did not want to leave his imprint on, regardless of whether it makes any sense - what is a rather childish behavior in a man entrusted leadership of a country. Singapore is often at the receiving end of his whims abroad - though it is not alone, as exhibited by Malaysia's latest scuffles with India, EU or even (albeit with more restraint) with China.
Ever since he was sworn in as the prime minister last year he has employed complaining as a tool in domestic and foreign policy - although it's really hard to see why, because it has failed him and his country every single time.
Of course to a degree it was used to reinforce the narrative that everything was bad under Najib - so, obviously, projects like High Speed Rail link to Singapore, MRT expansion in Kuala Lumpur or East Coast Rail Link were considered too expensive for a supposedly badly indebted Malaysia. He even flipped the 10% GST for a 10% SST, just to leave a mark, while pretending to be cutting taxes.
All of this could have sounded fairly reasonable and defensible were it not for revival of the water dispute with Singapore, incursion into island's territorial waters or protests against the Instrument Landing System installed at Seletar airport last year.
These conflicts revealed that Mahathir has simply chosen to portray his country as a victim (either of corrupt predecessors or foreign rivals) and weaponize this victimhood to achieve political goals, regardless of the consequences to infrastructural projects and international relations - and their subsequent impact on lives of Malaysians.
It doesn't matter if railway links serve the country in the best possible way or that citizens of Klang Valley or Johor have access to badly needed public transit. The only thing that matters is the impression that the nation is in dire straits and its salvation is owed entirely to him.
The problem is that it all may look or sound smart (even cunning), but in reality it keeps leading to a massive embarrassment time and time again.
Water agreements with Singapore remain in force. ECRL is going to be cheaper - but because it was scaled down, so the Chinese have yielded nothing to Malaysia as I explained in this article a few months ago. ILS system in Seletar was dismantled, but it left Firefly, the Malaysian airline which requested it, at a disadvantage in bad weather, preventing it from landing in Singapore. High Speed Rail was suspended - but not only was it meant to provide reliable, fast railway connections between cities in Peninsular Malaysia (helping to ease huge traffic issues) but it would also reduce congestion on existing road links between Johor and Singapore, moving people from cars and buses onto fast trains.
And now the good doctor wants to wreck the RTS which was meant to provide a quick and comfortable public transit connection feeding into Singapore's MRT network, allowing thousands of Malaysians who work in Singapore to travel smoothly to the city.
Putrajaya has already asked to delay the project twice (which is now behind schedule by about 2 years) and now it wants to scale it down by using inferior LRT technology, allegedly to save costs. In fact, it has just asked for a 3rddelay (by another 6 months) - to April 2020.
We're hearing tearful explanations that the country is struggling financially and wants to save every penny.... and then five minutes later Mahathir goes on to attack Singapore for not wanting to build a third bridge across the border.
If Malaysia is so poor it can't complete the RTS in line with earlier agreements why does it want to talk about a hugely expensive new bridge?
To put things in perspective, RTS under original specification is supposed to cost S$1.6 billion. Second Link bridge connecting Malaysia to Tuas opened in 1998 cost S$1.5 billion - more than 20 years ago. The cost of any new road bridge between the countries would likely reach a few billion dollars - and Malaysia went completely overboard floating some preposterous ideas suggesting a connection to Pulau Ubin or a bridge to Pengerang - east of Pulau Tekong.
For all the complaints about the cost of RTS, Malaysian authorities seem to be very generous when it comes to building bridges. It's quite remarkable because since they were elected last year they have been mostly engaged in burning them.
Dr. M may have approved (tacitly) the RTS during the conference last Thursday but in his trademark fashion he couldn't help himself and groaned, taking a swipe at Singapore again: "In the year 3000, I will not be around. By that time, there will be 100 million people in Johor wanting to go to Singapore. Still there will be no new bridge, so I don’t see how we can be so accommodating to Singapore with Singapore not accommodating us."
As if that wasn't enough, he even managed to bring the water dispute into it (!): “You just see, we are willing to sacrifice money to support Singapore so that they can buy cheap water for themselves but when we want to build a bridge to solve the traffic problem, they refuse to have the bridge… I don’t know why.”
In Mahathir's world Malaysia is an understanding, cooperative and generous country which (for reasons unknown) is being taken advantage of, despite its best intentions.
It goes without saying that the 94 year old in charge of the country is not a man of the times. He still appears to be dreaming about a Malaysian national car and quite clearly hates public transit (already axing the MRT3 project and scaling down MRT2 in Kuala Lumpur) - what, of course, is not a major issue for someone who gets the benefit of police escorts through notorious Malaysian traffic jams.
But his inconsistency, incompetence and outright ill-will are so visible that they are actually rather entertaining.
Mahathir behaves like a grumbling grandpa, spending his days complaining about everything and then reminiscing about the failed ideas of his younger days, that he is unable to let go of.
Unfortunately, this image is, by extension, projected onto the country. So how can Malaysia be treated seriously if the whiny old man in charge complains all the time? He picked a fight with the EU (over palm oil), he offended India (over Kashmir and Malaysian protection of Muslim hate preacher Zakir Naik), he even thought it made perfect sense to bar Israelis and any event that hosts Israel or its citizens on its soil - what led to it being stripped of organizing Paralympic swimming championships this year.
Of course, you may think that a niche competition for disabled swimmers isn't much to cry about but the reality is that such smaller events ultimately prove the country's ability to host more serious ones in the future. And how can international institutions consider Malaysia which singles out contenders for their nationality?
This behavior does not go unnoticed elsewhere as well.
Will the EU be more inclined to listen to his complaints about the palm oil restrictions if the Malaysian PM chooses to publicly parade his Antisemitism? Of course not.
The world is a network of international interdependencies and one seemingly unrelated thing is going to impact many other. As if that wasn't enough, Malaysia went as far as to threaten the EU countries with retaliatory sanctions, what surely must have resulted in a wave of snickers across the world.
Art of War
It seems that the good doctor is not acquainted with the work of the great Sun Tzu, who advised: "appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak".
Instead, Malaysian PM has decided the best policy for his country is to appear weak when it is weak (which is always).
In a response to questions about possible foreign threats of espionage a few months ago, during the international controversy over Huawei, he (quite famously by now) replied that: “What’s there to spy in Malaysia? (...) Everybody knows. If any country wants to invade Malaysia, they can walk through and we will not resist because it’s a waste of time". Malaysians must have felt very reassured...
Lagging nations can only elevate themselves by projecting strength and resolve - not by complaining how bad their situation is.
China is a good example - back in the 1970s its GDP per capita was lower than in almost every country in Africa - and almost 9 times smaller than in Malaysia ($156 vs. $1246). Twenty years earlier 50 million people had died of starvation during Mao's Great Leap Forward. And yet, through determination and demonstrable willingness to reform and open up to the world, Beijing has managed to encourage foreigners to come and invest in the Middle Kingdom. Over the subsequent four decades it has only reinforced its image as a stable - even if somewhat duplicitous - partner.
Even Malaysia's little brother, Singapore, serves as a good illustration of the point. A small island, devoid of resources, in a relatively good (but not unmatched) location has convinced the world's leading countries and corporations to invest billions of dollars in everything from industrial manufacturing to banking. It was thanks to the government committed to creating solid legal foundations for a business friendly environment, preventing corruption and securing broad public support for its policies, what promised political stability and only reassured foreign investors that their money will be well - and safely - spent.
Yet, despite its fragility and small size, its leaders were not afraid to lash out even against the US, once Americans denied that the CIA tried to bribe Lee Kuan Yew in 1960 - a fact he revealed in an interview in 1965, the year the island became an independent nation.
“The Americans should know the character of the men they are dealing with in Singapore and not get themselves further dragged into calumny…..They are not dealing with Ngo Dinh Diem or Syngman Rhee. You do not buy and sell this Government.” / Lee Kuan Yew
Even though Singapore was just a tiny speck on the map the blunt candor of its leader did not discourage foreign investment - quite the opposite, in fact.
And yet despite these lessons, Mahathir still fails to learn. He doesn't seem to care about finding the best way to do anything - but rather prefers "his" way, regardless of how inferior it is.
If Malaysia wants to be treated seriously it can't behave like bullied child seeking reprisal (or pity).
Alas, the entire country has become hostage to Mahathir's longevity which has extended not only his own life (bless him) but the life of his misguided, harmful ideas as well. Until he steps down - what he intends to do before the elections in 2023 - Malaysia is going to be stuck in the past that his premiership has sadly revived.