SINGAPORE NOW PLAYS TO the gallery in unresolved bilateral disputes, amidst negotiations. It released confidential information about the water agreement between Malaysia and Singapore in Parliament, brought a booklet of it in March, and put it on its website in June. It is upset the Malaysian media does not print its views, and that is dismissed as yet another reason the Malaysia media is at the mercy of the government. The Singapore media is not: it only reports the truth, and the truth is of a Malaysia swarming with fundemantalist Muslims out to deny Singapore a place in the sun.
But this would have had some sympathy if it had stopped there. The Singapore government has now released a recent exchange of letters between the trade ministers of Singapore and Indonesia to counter Indonesian claim the island republic was 'unfriendly' in not publishing bilateral trade figures. This claim is an old one: for years Jakarta had alleged Singapore encourages the smuggling of Indonesian exports, which were not reflected in bilateral trade figures. Jakarta argues because Singapore is less than honest in what it receives from this smuggling and other indirect imports.
Why then this sudden need to pick a diplomatic fight if Singapore was less than honest on this in the past and has not convinced Indonesia the past is past, and matters have changed dramatically? For a long time as an independent nation, Singapore was at odds with Jakarta. Many of the clashes are impinged on Indonesia's nationalist memory: the hanging of the two marines three decades ago, for instance.
Indonesia says the US$2.49 billion trade gap in Indonesia's exports is because Singapore hides billions of dollars in smuggling between the two countries, that it had asked for this data since 1973, has yet to receive them, might move its shipping elsewhere, take the dispute to international bodies for a settlement. Singapore responds to say the updated is given to Indonesia annually since 1974, allowed Jakarta to release the data but chose not to.
The issue, as with Malaysia, is not about the accuracy of data or with details but with the confidentiality of documents, and the secrecy sensitive talks demand. Singapore has broken this to force the pace, in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, in on-going talks. Why is understandable: the need to reinforce the incipient xenophobia amongst Singaporeans, three quarters of whom are Chinese. But it must understand it would be resisted. As it has.
There is a similar trend amongst the Malays in Malaysia, and for the same reason: the ruling parties in both find support amongst their constituency declining, and xenophobia is brought in to bring it back into the fold. A retired Singapore official, whose views I value much, tells me in an email that in this bilateral dispute xenophobia cannot be the cause of it. I argued that it is at the cultural root of the Malay in Malaysia and the Chinese in Singapore, indeed in any bilateral dispute. If this is not understood, as it is not, I fear, in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, things must get worse before it can get better.
Much historical baggage cloud attempts to bring Singapore's ties with Malaysia and Indonesia. So every issue is highlighted beyond its importance. Political factions in each raise the ante, and before long a full scale crisis is before us. A counter-reaction widens the conflict. But is there an attempt to find out why? No. Singapore insists on the sanctity of contracts, Malaysia and Indonesia tries to find a neutral ground in which there is no nose cutting and life can go on as usual.
But this xenophobia intrudes. The Chinese cannot be seen, certainly to Singapore, to be second fiddle to the Malays. The Malays would not allow the Chinese to steal a march over him. And vice-versa. This is never addressed. Instead, the two countries talk at cross purposes. Nothing is resolved. Malaysian officials bristle at accusations of Malay xenophobia as Singapore of Chinese xenophobia.
It is this xenophobia that led Malaysia and Singapore to tread different paths. Malaysia has done this more deftly than Singapore. It shows. Singapore does not understand that often for political rationalisation, Malaysian leaders must play to its gallery, with no thought that it would renege on the underlying agreeement. And expect Malaysians to accept why Singapore must. In short, neither Singapore and Malaysia understand each other when it comes to bilateral issues.
But this constant needling takes it toll. There is a hardening of attitudes in Malaysia. Singapore military aircraft routinely breach Malaysian airspace in Trengganu and Kelantan, and move smartly out to international waters when Royal Malaysian Air Force jets scramble. This needling, in the view of the armed forces command, could result in an ugly incident. I would not be surprised if it does. There is a deep suspicion in Jakarta that Singapore sells guns to Aceh. Whether it is true or not is not the issue: past history suggests it could be true. Even if it is not.
Singapore cannot overcome these suspicions by releasing confidential documents for no reason than to show the other side is not as upright, in her view, as they. Could this change? Yes, but not now. All three countries - Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia - have problems with their ground, and must be seen, to their electors, to be tough and would go to the edge if it must. But when that is taken a tad too far, as in the current disputes with Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, she might get more than she bargained for. In Malaysia, a military conflict with Singapore is talked about before this decade is out, even amongst those who not long ago eschewed it. The officials in the three countries are schooled in nationalist hype without the intervening belief in statecraft for the common good. This cannot last. But until then, much of the same would dominate.