Malaysia Can't Win with Singapore - But It Can Lose a Lot

Why, dear Malaysia, why? Why do you keep doing this? To Singapore - and to yourself. Why the repeated attacks over completely meaningless issues?

In a follow up to my earlier post about why "Mahathir Must Step Down" I've decided to examine if there is anything Malaysia can actually win in the ongoing spats. Unsurprisingly, the verdict isn't positive.

It boggles the mind because even hostilities usually have a certain goal - there is a prize that the attacker wants to secure (regardless of whether it's moral or not). But here, now? Is there really anything Malaysia can gain from bickering with its smaller (albeit stronger) sibling?

"Don't throw stones at your neighbors' if your own windows are glass." / Benjamin Franklin

One of the most ludicrous things is how the rhetoric is being stoked up by Malaysian politicians, with the latest being Dr Rais Hussin, heading Mahathir's party policy and strategy bureau, warning Singapore over "pain by a thousand cuts” for not relenting to obvious violation of all civilized rules - not to mention the law itself - by Malaysia, in the ongoing maritime dispute.

But it is an even more dumbfounding spectacle, seeing someone seemingly responsible for any "strategy" and yet so woefully lacking basic understanding of how weak Malaysia is. Worse than that - how little Malaysia can achieve (and how much it can lose) in the continuous spats with the Lion City.

Malaysia Can't Win...

1. Economically

Prosperity requires stability. Any government that's erratic is not going to inspire trust - and international observers are not blind. There is nothing Malaysia can gain by unilaterally expanding maritime boundaries or disrupting airspace operations. But it can - and does - appear to be unstable and irrational.

Even if Singaporean government relented and agreed to renegotiate some of the deals with its neighbor, agreeing to e.g. pay more for water from Johor, the lasting impression of Malaysian behavior in this matter is going to be negative.

If authorities in Putrajaya go around trying to muscle others to submit to them, as they demand to change the rules during the game, how many foreign investors are going to be encouraged to risk their money in the country?

Even if Malaysians could extract millions of ringgit from renegotiated deals, they are actively destroying their already poor reputation.

2. Legally

Some of these disputes aren't even new. They're like a boomerang coming back every few years so that Malaysian politicians can score a few points domestically by rallying frustrated voters and focus blame on Singapore for a few moments - away from their own failures at home.

It's all baseless provocation that the people in charge know has absolutely no legal grounds (as ever). What is really unsettling is that it started immediately after Pakatan Harapan win in May.

Is there really nothing more important to do in Malaysia?

You get five years to turn the country around and you start by straining ties with your closest neighbor? With such a pitiable governance it's small wonder that many foreigners still consider Malaysia to be closer to the third not the first world.

That's not how you become a tiger - that's how you end up as a pariah.

These are methods of unstable dictatorships desperately looking for a lifeline. It's painfully reminiscent of the Falklands War, when Argentinian military junta wanted to divert public attention from catastrophic economic situation in the country and score some points by annexing the islands. It ended with a humiliation and collapse of the regime.

Of course Malaysian government isn't going this far (at least not yet) - but it is treading a very fine line...

3. Militarily

...and that's because Singapore not only has the means to defend itself - it has the means of exacting devastating damage.

Malaysia is playing a dangerous game. Small countries cannot hold back if they believe they are under direct threat. Should Malaysian politicians ever carelessly take one step too far and Singapore's military was compelled to act it wouldn't happen in days or weeks - it would happen in hours or even minutes.

Lack of physical space means that every part of Singapore is critically vulnerable. That's why the city-state is armed to the teeth - and it is also why, in case of any conflict, it would have to conduct a quick attack to obliterate any means of rapid response from opponents.

Given its vast numerical advantage (about 4-1 in modern fighter aircraft) and better equipment, achieving air superiority over entire Malay peninsula would be very swift - as would be the damage to critical infrastructure.

A single mistake, a single rash act and Malaysia can be sent 30 years back in time.

Malaysian Future is in Cooperation not Conflict with Singapore

The most depressing thing about all this needless political recklessness is that both countries are perfectly aligned to benefit from mutual cooperation. Lee Kuan Yew, sobbing on the day of separation of Singapore, knew this well.

Singapore has the money, reputation and location. It has become a major business hub attracting global companies. World class airport and harbor serve as its windows to the world.

Malaysia has the land, useful resources and young, affordable workforce. Partnering with its wealthy neighbor should be an obvious springboard for the country to leap ahead to prosperity.

And yet for most of their existence, both countries have never established really warm mutual ties. Instead, it's merely a loose marriage of convenience, occasionally devolving into senseless shouting exchanges, provoked by the envy of the less successful partner.

Malaysia should be grateful for having such a great neighbor - it is an absolutely unique situation to be placed so close to a global trade nexus that attracts business from all over the world. Most countries have to fend for themselves but here the money is at their doorstep.

With greater cooperation it could benefit immensely from this proximity. Instead it chose to bunker itself behind hurt pride and inflate its ego by being spitefully disruptive.

What Malaysian politicians fail to understand, however, is that rather than hurting Singapore - which has impeccable global reputation - they are only cementing the image of Malaysia as backward, erratic and untrustworthy.

Is it really worth it?