AMIDST steaming Earl Grey, cheese-filled sandwiches and the soft chatterings of the participants of ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) 2014, Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia Ong Keng Yong (picture) appeared very much at home during an insightful conversation with The Borneo Post’s Phyllis Wong, Francis Chan and Peter Sibon.
Candid and sharp, the 59-year-old diplomat with decades of experience under his belt, sent across an important message — Singapore views its bilateral relations with Malaysia as of utmost importance and the island state will do everything to preserve the good ties between the two countries.
Q: What is the biggest challenge now in the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore?
A: It’s the rising cost of living in Malaysia. In Johor, or Johor Bahru in particular, the living cost has gone up very fast and very high. It is said to be due to the presence of Singaporean investors, tourists, shoppers or day trippers who go there to do their marketting. This has put a bit of pressure on the Johor authorities.
However, the fact is that the cost of living has gone up because the Malaysian government has scaled back subsidies. It has taken measures to maintain budgetary discipline. But for the people of Johor, the rising cost of living has to do with the influx of Singaporeans to invest and to shop. This is the issue we have to manage now.
Q: Has there been any misunderstanding between the two countries — from time to time? If so, why has it been happening?
A: Occasionally, you will get certain issues that some people in Malaysia or Singapore may view differently. Like any other relationships, there will be different opinions on different things. The question is how we manage the differences. You live and let live and you learn to communicate with one another and explain the issues.
Whether Singapore or Malaysia, the starting point must be that neither side is interested in undermining the relationship. So when there were allegations of spying by Singapore, our explanation is why would we want to harm the relationship with Malaysia?
Now, the personal ties between the two prime ministers are very good. Because of this, we have a lot of cooperation. Why would Singapore want to do anything to undermine the relationship? In fact, we should do everything to strengthen the relationship.
You asked why all these differences from time to time — it is historical. We were originally one country and then we separated. We went our own way. We compete with one another with regards to economic policies, how we reach out to the world, how we conduct our relations with other important trading partners. So we compete. There is this competitive dynamic which may bring about certain opinions about each other.
But overall, the good part about our relationship in the last five years is that the two top leaders are able to see the difficulties in managing the relationship, and they look at the positive account of things. They refuse to accentuate the differences to make them even more difficult to manage.
Q: Talking about the spy issue some time ago, has a proper explanation been given to Malaysia?
A: Yes, we explained at three levels. Foreign Minister to Foreign Minister; for myself, I explained to the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Malaysia (Wisma Putra), and at the international level such as ASEAN meeting like this, my officials to Malaysian officials at different levels.
We have stressed many times you cannot go into the technicality of this issue. Our message to Malaysia is this story actually originated many months ago. At that time, nobody fingered Singapore. Then in November, using the same story but a new angle about Singapore, people started to finger Singapore. Something is going on. We don’t know what is it. But it is important for us to try to look at the big picture. Why do we want to harm the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore?
Now, the Malaysian government’s position is you have given us the clarification and that is it. We have not heard anything further. I hope this will be something logical and understood by both sides.
Q: So what you are saying is that the report was not true and that Singapore did not spy on Malaysia?
A: I cannot say whether it is true or not true because our policy is not to say yes or no. I think the leadership from both sides has tried to look forward rather than at this report and questioned why was this happening.
I hope we do not continue looking at this issue and get affected by it. But we have learnt from this experience — that whatever reported in the media, in small prints or big headlines, we have to be sensitive. We have to look at how this kind of reporting can be distorted or misunderstood by people. So nowadays, all my colleagues in the Embassy or the High Commission have to look at media reports carefully.
Sometimes, they even need to inform the relevant department of small things that people overlook. For example, there might be reports that a certain foodstuff was not allowed into Singapore because Malaysia’s Domestic Ministry wanted to manage the supply. When that happened, we would inform our department concerned the exercise was not targetted at Singapore. It was just Malaysia trying to manage its domestic issue and we should not become too sensitive.
This is the kind of things we are doing now. We look at our media, we look at your media. There are times we don’t know what to make out of some reports. Every blog looks authoritative. Yet, if we don’t pay attention, something may pop up which snowball into something big. But if we pay attention, how do we measure our response?
Q: Singapore is very keen to upgrade its fleet of fighter planes. Is Singapore seeing Malaysia as a threat?
A: This question you pose to me can also be posed to you when Malaysia is beefing up its defence. No, I think in the area of defence, both sides have good relationships with each other.
I think in the case of defence ties, all our relevant defence establishments are in constant preparation for the worst case scenario. What is the worst case scenario, no one can tell. Before 911, we were talking about conventional warfare. Who could have imagined terrorists would be your biggest threat? After 911, people realised it makes no difference whether there is a big ocean or a big land mass between my potential enemy and I.
In the development of our defence forces, buying new equipment to replace obsolete ones is actually part and parcel of the process to develop a viable strong deterrent force. Every country has the same policy. We need a good efficient army, air force and navy.
Q: So can we say Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore or the other Southeast Asian countries have reached an understanding where defence is concerned?
A: People forget Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia and UK have a Five Power Defence Arrangement — FPDA under which, we are committed to defend each other. This has been going on since the 1970’s till today. Every year, our defence ministers from the five countries meet and talk about this. And below that level, the permanent secretaries or the secretary generals of defence ministries meet. And below that, the uniform guys. There has been very good interaction.
The idea of meeting is that we provide opportunity to discuss some of these issues. ASEAN has provided the opportunity for all the ASEAN defence ministries or defence forces to come together. The word we would like to use is socialise with one another through which we can hopefully develop a habit of cooperation. As we develop our ASEAN relationships, our defence ministries will also progressively adapt to the habit of cooperation.
Between the police of Malaysia and Singapore, cooperation has been good. When a well-known drug trafficker slips into Malaysia, the Malaysia police will alert Singapore. That is the level of cooperation we have between the two polices. That has been why we have had a lot of good results in dealing with criminals in Singapore and Malaysia.
Q: You were talking about media in Malaysia. We as a media (in Malaysia) have observed that Singapore media have always been very unkind and they like to sensationalise what is happening in Malaysia while they are very diplomatic and courteous in reporting what is happening in Singapore. What is your opinion on that?
A: I read Singapore newspapers from time to time. And frankly, I don’t think they did that intentionally. You are in the media, you know. The guy who reports, the guy who edits and the guy who does headlines are three different individuals. I think newspapers in Singapore have reached a point of being over-touchy to the opinions of Malaysia and Indonesia in covering some stories. The Singaporean news people told me even late in the night, they would come together to compare notes to make sure they avoid any notion of sensationalising news about Malaysia.
As far as the government is concerned, we take the position that we are always watching our own media. We read them from time to time. We hope they understand the relations between Malaysia and Singapore are very important and people-to-people relations are especially important. We should not do anything to sensationalise reports because if you do, you are going to cause a lot of difficulties in levelling things out.
There are some instances where some of the reports might have led Malaysia to think the newspapers in Singapore have gone overboard. A few months ago, we actually received a strong reaction from your Foreign Minister about one tabloid reporting on the crime rate in Johor Baru. We called up the editor and explained to him the headline had caused distress in Malaysia.
As the Foreign Ministry of Singapore, we want to promote good relations with Malaysia. We expect Singapore newspapers to understand the bigger foreign policy elements as well as the overall bitateral relations, or for that matter, our relations with other countries such as Thailand or Indonesia.
Q: Would you be taking action against New York Times? (New York Times’ editorial titled Singapore’s angry migrant workers, had commented on the Dec 8 riot in Little India).
A: I do not know. The only thing I know is they refuse to publish our reply. Our position is well established, you can write anything about me but I will also reply you. How can you write about somebody and when the person responds, you don’t care about what he says. I remember in the old days, we used to take up an advertisement. If you don’t publish the reply, I will advertise on the front page in New York Times. May be we should do that again.
Q: After the riot, is there any change of policy?
A: This was a tragic accident. And because of the large crowd around the place of the incident, people’s emotions went haywire. After that, there were a lot of immediate actions taken by the people on the ground. Definitely, the typical Singaporean approach is that when there is a problem like that, we look at it to find out the shortcomings and make sure it does not occur again.
From our investigations, so far, very few people had linked the riot to their working conditions. They were just angry because someone got killed and they wanted to take action into their own hands against the bus driver. But right now, many in the western world think all these happened because the working conditions in Singapore are not good.
The case was reported (on Jan 20) to Parliament. I hope the relevant authorities will deal with it. This incident came up in the context of the growing unpopularity of having foreign workers in Singapore. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is already taking action in trying to reduce the number of foreign workers in Singapore. We will take action to make sure the policy is adjusted to avoid a repeat of such an incident.
Q: Can Singapore live without foreign workers?
Q: In this regard, what are steps or changes the Singapore government will be taking?
A: There are two to three broad measures the government will be taking. One is to tell Singaporeans there are jobs in Singapore such as street cleaning, janitorial services and domestic help that no Singaporeans would want to do. These are the kinds of jobs opened to foreign workers unless we want dirty streets or mothers leaving their jobs to look after their children at home.
The next level is to raise the wages for professional jobs such as nursing and security that Singaporeans can do but refuse because the pay is too low. With rising wages, hopefully more Singaporeans will join the profession.
Then, there are those kinds of jobs which, even if you were to pay high salary, no Singaporeans will be available. For example, scientists in bio-chemical or petroleum sector. We have a big industry in Singapore. There is an island called the Jurong Island where the whole island is devoted to petrol-chemical and oil refinery. To train a chemist takes six to seven years after high schools. In the meantime, what do you do? For this kind of job, we still need a lot of foreign engineers, chemists and scientists.
By this kind of categorisation, Singaporeans will see there is a need for foreign workers. Even in the fast food joints, we also need foreign manpower. So now, the government is thinking of relaxing student visa to allow students study in Singapore to work part time in fast food chain. At the same time, we also encourage young Singaporeans who want to earn extra money to go into the industry.
I think in the next five years, we are going to see a lot of public education where government leaders and MPs will explain the changes taking place in our lives.
The reasons for such a reaction to foreign workers is first, Singaporeans blame the congestion in buses and trains on foreign workers. Actually, it is not so straightforward. Most providing janitorial or manual services don’t use the public transport between 7.30am and 9am. They probably use it at 6am where most Singaporeans are still sleeping. So you cannot blame the lack of space in buses and trains on the presence of foreign workers.
Secondly, Singaporeans look around Singapore and say everything is now constrained by limited land. The more foreigners we have, the less chance Singaporeans think they have to buy condominiums and flats. Is it true? No, this can be fixed. That is why the Housing Development Board (HDB) is increasing the supply of public housing units and more land has been given out for more housing.
I think we first have to manage foreign workers according to different categorisations and secondly, it is important for more and more Singaporeans to be more open-minded. This is the way we move forward.