The number 50 is psychologically special to almost everybody. Notwithstanding the debate about the age of Malaysia, whether it was 50 years old or 44 in 2007, we too had a huge celebration for our golden anniversary. Down south this year, Singapore is approaching its 50th anniversary as an independent state.
The Singaporean anniversary is less ambiguous than Malaysia’s. There are fewer ominous existential questions being thrown around unlike in Malaysia when from time to time, we hear secessionist sentiments coming out from Sabah.
There is a myth in Malaysia that Singapore seceded from our federation. In truth, it was Tunku Abdul Rahman who pushed the island-city out with a vote in Parliament in Kuala Lumpur sealing the decision.
Unilateral secession is impossible legally. Furthermore, Singapore itself did not want to leave and this was very clear through Lee Kuan Yew’s writings. Jeffrey Kitingan, unfortunately, recently repeated the secessionist myth as he pandered to Sabahan nationalists for his own political fortune by saying secession is a state right, showing again and again that history can be forgotten and worse, twisted to fit the preferred narrative.
That is not the only myth: some Malaysians still think there are 14 states in the federation somehow forgetting that Singapore is no more a member state. It is as if the vestiges of the Malaysian Singapore still linger and that these Malaysians have yet to come to terms with the 1965 separation.
The fourteenth stripe and the fourteenth point in the Federal Star of the Jalur Gemilang now have been redefined to represent the federal government and the three territories, instead of Singapore as was previously. Our coat of arms no longer has the Singaporean red and white crescent and star underneath the four colors of the old Federated Malay States. In its place is the red hibiscus, what seems to be the forgotten Malaysian national flower.
Regardless of the myths, Singapore and Malaysia did go separate ways and that has been the source of contention between the two. The issues range from water supply and train land in the heart of Singapore to ownership of rocky outcrops in the middle of the sea. Some have been resolved amicably but the general rivalry persists even as the Causeway ties have improved since the almost irrationally nationalistic days of Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew.
One can speculate what would have happened if Singapore had remained within the federation. This question has been raised as Singaporeans reflect on their 50 years of independence but I think the more interesting one is whether there would be a time when Singapore would rejoin Malaysia.
As much as I believe international borders with its passport and visa requirements are suffocating in this modern world, I think that is a very distant possibility. Malaysia is unprepared for Singapore just as we were not prepared for a Malaysian Malaysia in 1963. I do not believe the pro-Bumiputra policy will go away even if power does change from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Rakyat in Putrajaya. The Bumiputras are the majority in Malaysia and there will always be pressure to appease them. It is the uncomfortable truth of electoral politics that makes idealists sigh.
Just look at the squabbling in Pakatan between PAS and DAP that has degenerated to race and religion. You can also read Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s speeches and wonder what exactly he is saying about hudud, for instance, out of fears angering either the liberals or the more conservative Muslim majority.
Meanwhile in Barisan, the slightest hint of liberalization is being fiercely opposed by the conservative sides in Umno. When discussing the Transpacific Partnership agreement, one of the top objections to the negotiation is how it would affect the Bumiputra, and really, the Malay, business community. Prime Minister Najib Razak is already facing a civil war within his party for the liberalization he did and other less admirable factors that include the mismanagement of the country.
Ultimately, there is a common theme across Barisan and Pakatan and that means it is more of a systemic Malaysian issue. Adding Singapore into the equation would not help and could even make it worse.
Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan recently said in a speech, it is “impossible for us to ever be part of Malaysia again unless Malaysia abandons its basic organizing principle.” That principle will not go away any time soon.
But we have Asean and in many ways both Malaysia and Singapore are already integrating. Both citizens can travel across the border without much hassle, if you discount the congestion at the Causeway. Some Singaporeans are already living in Malaysia as the government is promoting Nusajaya and Johor Baru, to put it bluntly, as the suburbs of the world-city Singapore.
And the Asean Economic Community due for implementation this year would deepen integration between the two, which is already one of the most ― I would think it is the most ― integrated national economies in the region.
Realistically the AEC would take time but the trajectory is clear. That I think is a reasonable future for both Malaysia and Singapore: a closer confederation of South-east Asian states.
So, we do not need Singapore in Malaysia. We just need to have both countries to be active in Asean.