Rumbling on the ground over IDR
By Carolyn Hong
The Straits Times
JUST after Malaysian Premier Abdullah Badawi waved goodbye to his Singaporean counterpart in Langkawi last Tuesday, he headed straight for a meeting with Malaysian reporters.
Datuk Seri Abdullah had called the meeting to clarify Singapore's part in Johor's new economic zone, the Iskandar Development Region (IDR). That was because he and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had agreed at their Langkawi retreat to set up a joint ministerial committee to ease cooperation between both countries on the IDR. The 2,217 sq km IDR plans to leverage on its proximity to Singapore to grow the Johor economy.
On his return to Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Seri Abdullah called yet another meeting with the Malaysian media, this time with its top editors.
The Straits Times understands the Malaysian Premier told the editors repeatedly that the committee was not a 'sell-out', and that he did not want the media to be used for emotional outbursts from certain quarters.
By then, it had become clear there were rumblings on the ground that the committee meant Malaysia was bending over backwards to attract the Republic's investors to the IDR. This despite the fact that such joint committees - often dubbed consultative, steering or some such - are common in partnerships Singapore has forged elsewhere, such as in China.
Much was made of the term 'consultative committee', which some read as meaning that Kuala Lumpur would have to 'consult' Singapore before proceeding with its plans, rather than as a joint platform for cooperation to be discussed.
These sentiments were reflected by an editor who was at the Abdullah meeting. He told The Straits Times: 'There were feelings that the IDR was becoming an extension of Singapore.'
A day after the Langkawi meeting, two Umno lawmakers complained in the Senate that the committee meant that Singapore could dictate the development of the IDR.
Former MP and journalist Ruhanie Ahmad also questioned the committee. 'Is the IDR jointly owned by Singapore?' he wrote in his blog a few days after the meeting.
It is not clear how widespread these feelings are. For now, Datuk Ruhanie and his fellow dissenters appear confined to a small, if vocal, group.
But an Umno Youth grassroots leader told The Straits Times that on the ground, there is quite a bit of unease about the current active cooperation between the two countries.
The unease was serious enough for Datuk Seri Abdullah to once again address the issue on Thursday, this time to brush off fears that Singapore might meddle in the IDR.
Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman also held a press conference last week to clarify that the committee would not handle matters such as investment approvals.
For its part, Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry made it clear in a statement on Tuesday that it was quite happy for Malaysia to take the lead on the committee.
Certainly, this is not the first time that the Malaysian government is fighting fires over its ties with Singapore. It had to do so when it was negotiating for a bridge to replace the Causeway, and when it was thinking of having a fast train to link Singapore with Kuala Lumpur.
Old feelings run deep.
As Mr Tony Pua, the economic adviser to the opposition Democratic Action Party, told The Straits Times: 'The top leaders have taken steps to mend relations, but the core sentiment on the ground has not moved that much.'
He said some Malaysians still see Singapore as being overly pushy. Some are also irked by the Republic's apparent lack of interest in resolving outstanding bilateral issues, especially the price of raw water it buys from Malaysia.
But Mr Pua noted that these old sentiments could harm Malaysia's economic interests.
Malaysia's intelligentsia share his views.
Writing in the New Straits Times on Monday, former Malaysian diplomat Deva M. Ridzam said the committee is a good start as it fosters mutual prosperity.
The deputy group editor of The Star, Datuk Wong Chun Wai, wrote in his most recent Sunday column that the IDR was set to change Malaysia's socioeconomic landscape dramatically. 'But,' he wrote, 'we cannot do it alone. We need Singapore. Period.'
Last Wednesday , Johor Baru MP Shahrir Samad was also quoted by Malaysia's Berita Harian newspaper as saying it was good that Singapore was cooperating to make the IDR a success.
Otherwise, he said, Johor would get only those investments which Singapore did not want and would remain its 'back alley'.
The government is acutely aware of the sentiments on the ground. But it is also determined to stay on track.
In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times just before the Langkawi meeting, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said that rumblings on the ground were not a big concern because the country's leaders certainly wanted to work with Singapore.
And they are making haste to do so. Next week, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak will lead a top-level delegation to Singapore on an investment roadshow that will include promoting the IDR.