A Wahhabi Prophet comes to Najib’s LaLaLand


March 2, 2017

A Wahhabi Prophet comes to Najib’s LaLaLand

by S Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

“My biggest fear is that the enlightened Arab thinkers are going to leave the Arab world in search of fresh air: somewhere far away from the sword of the religious authorities.”– Raif Badawi, ‘1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think’

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UMNO’s Grand Poobah and his Fan Club

A long-time reader of my writings and someone who has become a friend asked me what I thought about the visit of the House of Saud. “The Prime Minister must be really desperate,” he said and was taken aback when I disagreed.

In my opinion, UMNO President Najib Abdul Razak is in a better position than the current monarch of Saudi Arabia. Maybe it is because Saudi Arabia is heading into (1) extremely choppy financial waters, (2) waging an ideological and proxy war with Iran, (3) leading a “coalition” against Yemen, and (4) promulgating its version of Islam (Wahhabism) which has resulted in blowback across the world.

1) As reported by CNNMoney – “After years of raking in huge sums of oil money, these days Saudi Arabia is pulling out all the stops to raise cash. The kingdom is reportedly planning to take out a US$10 billion loan from a group of banks, possibly paving the way for its first international bond sale.

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“The problem is Saudi Arabia needs oil prices at over US$100 a barrel to break even on its budget. The kingdom spends heavily on perks for its huge population of nearly 30 million. Now it’s being forced to reverse some of those gifts, as highlighted by the recent 50 percent gas price hike. Saudi Arabia’s ‘lavish social spending program is on a collision course’ with cheap oil, (Zach) Schreiber said.”

(Schreiber was CEO of hedge fund PointState Capital who walked away with US$1 billion after betting that oil prices would crash three years ago.)

2) Did anyone else read Iranian Foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled ‘Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism’? I certainly did –

“Saudi Arabia’s effort to persuade its Western patrons to back its shortsighted tactics is based on the false premise that plunging the Arab world into further chaos will somehow damage Iran. The fanciful notions that regional instability will help to ‘contain’ Iran, and that supposed rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are fueling conflicts, are contradicted by the reality that the worst bloodshed in the region is caused by Wahhabists fighting fellow Arabs and murdering fellow Sunnis.”

3) Just last month the United Nations warned Saudi Arabia and its “allies” that war crimes may have been committed in the Yemen conflict – “A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition has carried out attacks in Yemen that ‘may amount to war crimes’”, UN sanctions monitors reported to the world body’s Security Council, warning coalition allies including the United States, Britain and France that they are obligated to respect international humanitarian law.

4) Again, from the New York Times, last year – “Small details of Saudi practice can cause outsize trouble. For at least two decades, the kingdom has distributed an English translation of the Quran that in the first surah, or chapter, adds parenthetical references to Jews and Christians in addressing Allah: ‘those who earned your anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).’ Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a Professor of Islamic studies at The George Washington University and the editor-in-chief of the new Study Quran, an annotated English version, said the additions were ‘a complete heresy, with no basis in Islamic tradition’.”

Compared to the above, being labelled a kleptocrat at the centre of the country’s biggest financial scandal pales in comparison. Furthermore, unlike the wolves baying at the door of the House of Saud, the opposition towards this Najib regime is fractured, with certain members of the coalition still thinking–how naive– they can deal with PAS.

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It is pointless talking about the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. It is pointless pointing out the fact that the so-called moderate form of Islam practiced in Malaysia is anathema to the kind of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. It is pointless going over the so-called “donation” that was – or not to be – from the Kingdom.

Forestalling another Arab Spring

Remember, when Islamist political parties PAS and UMNO were arguing about UMNO actually used the donation to “uplift” Muslims?

I certainly do – “PAS Vice-President Iskandar Abdul Samad in a statement that was revealing of the UMNO strategy but at the same time an unintentional condemnation of Islam, questioned the efficacy of the use of dubious funds in the eradication of Muslim poverty, here in Malaysia.

“Would it have been acceptable to PAS if the so-called gift from The House of Saud was used to ‘uplift’ Muslims here in Malaysia? Of course, PAS splinter group Amanah is equally myopic in its version of how Islam is practiced in Malaysia.”

I contend there is nothing we can and should take from the Saudi Kingdom. I would argue that the reason why Malaysia is a so-called moderate state is because however dismally we have managed to resist the excesses of the House of Saud, we still have a multi-ethnic population whose contribution to politics, economics and culture has maintained a fast fading line between what the Wahhabis and their ilk want and what is secular and rational.

Saudi Arabia has been embarking on social programmes for years putting money in the hands of its citizens. This is not nearly enough because with records highs in unemployment and poverty, the country is the poster child for what Islamic states would look like if Wahhabism managed to overrun the world.

The issue here is not whether you think that BR1M is a question of corruption. When the UMNO Grand Poobah notes with satisfaction that the House of Saud is considering adopting a similar plan of putting money into the bank accounts of needy citizens, they are doing this because they have screwed up the economy to the point that people are living in (even more) poverty and the House of Saud is attempting to forestall another Arab Spring.

Saudi jails are filled to bursting point with not only ordinary people who have fallen foul of pernicious Wahhabi laws but also extremely dangerous fanatics who wish to wage war on the House of Saud and have bloody hands from not only domestic terror attacks but also plying their trade on foreign soil.

This of course is to be expected. If former United States Ambassador to Afghanistan and the United Nations, not to mention Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad is to be believed, officials from Riyadh admitted that they were funding extremists for years in part because of cold war hegemonic stratagems and their great game with Iran.

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Writing for Politico, Khalilzad (pic above) claimed that measures were currently under way to divest the system of its Islamic extremism. The said measures included:

  • New limits on the ability of the religious police to arrest dissidents.
  • Purges of extremists from the government and greater efforts to monitor their influence in security institutions.
  • The appointment of new religious leaders to counter Islamic extremism on theological grounds.
  • The transformation of the Muslim World League – a key Saudi arm for supporting Islamic movements abroad – by the appointment of a new leader and a decision to stop supporting Islamist madrassas abroad.

I suppose we should be grateful that Saudi petro dollars may run out and they will not be able to fund an ideology they know to be corrosive and barbaric. However, I am not holding my breath. Islamic State is a self-funded criminal organisation. The world over we have Muslims who do not think to question their religious beliefs, especially those which pits them against their fellow men and this is because of the efforts of the House of Saud.

I end this piece with another jailed Saudi dissident Raif Badawi’s quote as to what I think of this visit to Malaysia by Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud – “Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens. It’s important to stand in the way of such a mentality, to deny it from continuing its mission to murder the souls of its people, killing them deep within while they are still alive and breathing.”

More often than not, the truth hits close to home.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The Kim Jong-nam Assassination: Tussle between China and North Korea


February 21, 2017

The Kim Jong-nam Assassination:Kuala Lumpur caught in an Ongoing Tussle between Beijing and Pyongyang

As dramatic and disturbing as the assassination of Kim Jong-nam is, it is simply a sideshow in the ongoing tussle between Beijing and Pyongyang. 

An uppity client state 

North Korea has long been a Chinese client state. It owes its very existence to China which also accounts for 89% of North Korea’s foreign trade. Chinese economic assistance, food aid and investments literally keep North Korea afloat.

As a client state, North Korea is expected to be mindful of China’s overall strategic interests in the region. No one, however, apparently briefed North Korea’s brash young leader about the niceties of client state behaviour. Since coming to power in 2011, Kim Jong-un’s actions have caused alarm and concern in Beijing.

His nuclear weapons programme and poorly timed missile testing threaten to upset the delicate balance of power that China is seeking to maintain in East Asia at a time when there is an unpredictable new occupant in the White House. The Chinese were also chagrined by the 2013 execution for treason of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was well respected in Beijing. There were also a number of other unpleasant incidents between the two countries involving the treatment of Chinese investors and businessmen in North Korea.

More than anything else, however, a credible nuclear capability would give the North Korean dictator greater manoeuvrability vis-à-vis China and other powers, a worrying prospect for the Chinese leadership. As one Chinese professor put it, “If we choose an ally that can’t be tamed, we might become the biggest loser.”

To show its displeasure, China joined the international criticism of North Korea’s missile tests and last week rejected a shipment of coal from North Korea.

A slap in the face

Kim Jong-nam’s assassination has now plunged China-North Korea relations to a new low. It was no secret that Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was under China’s protection, having lived in China since he fell from favour more than a decade ago. His presence in China was a constant reminder to Kim Jong-un that China had a convenient replacement, one who had perhaps a better claim to the throne as the eldest son, if he proved too unreasonable. For that reason alone, Kim Jong-nam was a marked man.

However, not even the mercurial and impulsive North Korean leader would have dared act against his half-brother while he was on Chinese soil. It would have been an insult that China would simply not have tolerated.

Malaysia, on the other hand, with its open doors, lax security and indulgent attitude towards North Korea is another story. Certainly, the North Korean leadership would not have expected that Malaysia would react the way it did. The law of unintended consequences just keeps cropping up in international affairs.

The reaction from Beijing was also not long in coming. Shortly after the assassination, China suspended all shipments of coal from North Korea until the end of the year. While the move was presented as part of China’s efforts to implement UN sanctions against North Korea, it is almost certainly a direct response to the Kim assassination in Kuala Lumpur.

As coal is North Korea’s single largest export item to China, the suspension is bound to hit the North Korean regime particularly hard. No doubt other measures are being planned as well although China is unlikely, at least at this stage, to attempt regime change in Pyongyang.

A tougher than expected response

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Malaysia appeared to go out of its way to avoid doing anything that would further exacerbate the situation. The Home Minister indicated that the body would, in due course, be returned to Pyongyang in accordance with international practice. He also insisted that the incident would not affect bilateral relations.

The provocative response of the North Korean Ambassador, however, appears to have stiffened Malaysia’s resolve.

In two rambling press conferences, the Ambassador accused Malaysia of a litany of offenses – colluding with his country’s enemies, scheming to implicate North Korea in the assassination, roughing up North Korean citizens and violating human rights and international law.

Failure to respond appropriately to such a provocation would have made the Malaysian government, already beset by a number of domestic scandals, look weak.

Interestingly, while the Ambassador alluded to South Korea when he accused Malaysia of colluding with “hostile forces,” his comments could apply to China as well.

Wisma Putra, which was largely silent in the early days of the drama, quickly responded by summoning the North Korean Ambassador for a dressing down. More significantly, Wisma Putra announced that Malaysia’s Ambassador in Pyongyang had been recalled for consultations – the strongest diplomatic show of displeasure short of breaking off relations.

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Recalling our Ambassador is absolutely the right thing to do given that it is now pretty clear that North Korea was complicit in the assassination. No country can look with equanimity upon such outrageous behaviour.

The North Korean Ambassador is, of course, in a very delicate situation; he has a Damocles sword hanging over him. If he is not seen to be zealous and conscientious enough in defence of the regime, he could suffer the same fate as his predecessor who found himself at the wrong end of a firing squad after being recalled from Kuala Lumpur. It is this fear of the consequences of failure, as much as anything else, that might have pushed him to the point where his actions have now done serious damage to the bilateral relations. It is hard to see him continuing in his present post for long.

Such are the perils of working in the North Korean foreign service.

Diplomatic and protocol issues

The assassination also raises interesting protocol issues. According to Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice, long the go to handbook for diplomats, “If the death [of a diplomat] takes place in circumstances where ordinarily an inquest would be held, the authorities in the receiving state should if necessary be reminded that it has been general international practice not to hold an inquest where a diplomatic agent or other member of a mission dies in office, whether in inviolable premises or not.”

Some would argue, therefore, that Malaysia did not have the authority to carry out the post-mortem and that North Korea is within its rights to demand the return of Kim Jong-nam’s remains given that he was travelling on a diplomatic passport.

However, it can also be argued that although Kim Jong-nam was travelling on a diplomatic passport he was not formally accredited here and is, therefore, not subject to the same protocol.

What this means is that Malaysia has a great deal of latitude in deciding how to proceed with the case. Given that other countries – China and South Korea come to mind – also have a vested interest in the outcome, Malaysia will have to tread a careful path if it wishes to avoid being caught up in the bigger power play that is unfolding behind the scenes.

For now at least, both China and South Korea will no doubt be pleased with Malaysia’s tough stance. They will take satisfaction that the investigation has resulted in prolonged negative exposure for Pyongyang that will both further isolate and discredit the regime.

What happens now will depend, to a large degree, on how things play out between Beijing and Pyongyang. Where the remains of Kim Jong-nam finally ends up will provide interesting clues.

Malaysia, which has been increasingly deferential to China – even quietly sending back to China Muslim Uighur refugees who sought asylum in Malaysia – will likely be mindful of China’s interest in the matter.

Rethinking Malaysia-North Korea relations 

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Address: Diplomatic Enclave Munhung-dong, Taedonggang District Pyongyang …Malaysian Embassy

If nothing else, hopefully the assassination and the angry North Korean response to Kuala Lumpur’s handling of the case will prompt a reassessment of relations with Pyongyang.

For some unfathomable reason, Malaysia has had a resident diplomatic mission in Pyongyang since 2003, one of only 23 missions in the North Korean capital. Unfathomable because trade is practically non-existent (with almost zero prospects of improvement) and there are simply no bilateral issues worth talking about that would warrant the expense of a mission.

Perhaps in a desperate bid to add some substance to the relationship, both countries even explored ways to enhance tourism, never mind that North Korea is a country with no outbound tourists and only a few, possibly insane, inbound travelers.

What is more preposterous, however, was the decision some years ago to quietly take in 300 North Korean workers to work in Sarawak’s mining sector. Why Malaysia would even think of employing North Korean workers – slave labour, to all intent and purposes, toiling in a distant land to augment the regime’s scarce foreign reserves – is a mystery.

Malaysia also plays host to an approximately 1000 strong tightly knit community of North Korean businessmen, restaurant workers and other dubious ‘professionals,’ all of whom are controlled by the North Korean embassy and serve the interests of the state in one form or another.

Clearly, this is a one-sided relationship that benefits North Korea rather than Malaysia. Certainly, not many Malaysian taxpayers will lose any sleep if our mission in Pyongyang is shut for good.

 

Donald Trump’s Mexico Tantrum


January 28, 2017

The Opinion Pages | Editorial

Donald Trump’s Mexico Tantrum

By The Editorial Board–www.nytimes.com
 Credit Doug Chayka

Less than a week into the job, President Trump on Thursday raised the specter of a trade war with America’s third-largest partner, Mexico, as the White House warned that the United States could impose a 20 percent tariff on Mexican imports.

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This absurd threat, issued as a proposal to cover the cost of a border wall, came just hours after President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico canceled a visit to the United States. The visit was supposed to improve the relationship between the two countries, deeply strained by Mr. Trump’s relentless scapegoating of Mexicans during his presidential campaign. But Mr. Peña Nieto decided he’d heard enough after Mr. Trump issued executive orders on Wednesday to begin rounding up unauthorized immigrants and building his border wall.

The tariff tantrum was the latest in a head-spinning torrent of lies, dangerous policy ideas and threats from the White House since Mr. Trump was sworn in last Friday(January 20) . They have underscored just how impulsive and apparently ignorant the new occupant of the Oval Office is of international economic and security relationships that serve American interests. His advisers appear unwilling to rein in his impulses or, as in the case of the tariff, hapless as they struggle to tamp them down.

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It’s hard to tell whether the animus Mr. Trump has conveyed toward immigrants, particularly Mexicans, is deeply felt, or if he simply came to recognize how powerfully it would appeal to voters disaffected by an uneven economic recovery and the nation’s demographic changes.

But allowing this view to drive trade and foreign policy toward Mexico could have disastrous consequences for workers and consumers in both countries, given how tightly intertwined the two economies have become since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994.

Imposing a tariff on Mexico would mean pulling out of NAFTA, a move that would severely disrupt the flow of parts and goods across North America and stall production in factories in the United States and Canada. It also could lead to shortages of fresh vegetables and fruits in American grocery stores and drive up the cost of many other consumer goods from Mexico. Mexico’s economy, which is hugely dependent on American trade, would be devastated. But American businesses and workers would stand to suffer immediate harm as well. Mexico would retaliate with tariffs of its own. And no matter how Congress tried to structure the tariff, which would require legislation, it would probably still violate World Trade Organization rules.

Mr. Trump has pointed to America’s trade deficit with Mexico as a sign that the United States is being swindled. Trade with Mexico — imports to the United States totaled $296 billion in 2015 — benefits America by lowering the cost and increasing the availability of goods, like avocados and mangoes in winter. While the trade deficit with Mexico has resulted in job losses in some industries (possibly about 700,000 jobs in the first 16 years), a 2014 study estimates that 1.9 million American jobs depend on exports to Mexico. And trade, by raising wages and the standard of living in Mexico, is a big reason that illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped steadily over the years.

Sending the Mexican economy into a tailspin is the surest way to reverse that trend, which historically has been driven by market forces, and has never been deterred much by fences or walls. Besides, a tax on Mexican imports would be paid by American consumers and businesses that buy those goods. Americans would pay for the wall, not Mexicans.

US -China Relations–Trump’s Strategy


December 26, 2016

US -China Relations–Trump’s Strategy

by Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd@ Reuters

 

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When Donald Trump becomes US President next month, one issue above all others could force his new administration to work closely with China and underscore why he and Beijing need each other – North Korea.

A nuclear armed North Korea, developing missiles that could hit the US west coast, is clearly bad news for Washington, but also Pyongyang’s sometimes-reluctant ally Beijing, which fears one day those missiles could be aimed at them.

“There is enormous space for the two countries to cooperate on North Korea. The two must cooperate here. If they don’t, then there will be no resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue,” said Ruan Zongze, a former Chinese diplomat now with the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.

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“It’s no good the United States saying China has to do more. Both have common interests they need to pursue, and both can do more,” he added.

North Korea is a tricky proposition even at the best of times for China and simply easing up on UN sanctions as a way to express displeasure at Mr. Trump’s foreign policies could backfire badly for China, said one China-based Asian diplomat.

“They can’t really do that without causing themselves problems,” the diplomat added, pointing to China’s desire to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

From North Korea to Iran to a closely entwined business relationship worth $598 billion in 2015, the two countries have broad common interests and China expects Mr. Trump to understand that.

While China was angered by Mr. Trump’s call this month with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, and then casting doubt over the future of the “one China” policy under which the US recognizes Taiwan as being part of China, it was also quite restrained, said a senior Beijing-based Western diplomat.

“China’s game now is to influence him and not antagonize him,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. China believes the two countries need each other and as Mr. Trump is a businessman he understands that, the People’s Daily wrote last month.

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“The importance of the China-US relationship goes without saying and can be said to be too big to fail,” the Communist Party mouthpiece wrote in a commentary.

China also expects a transactional relationship with the deal-making Mr. Trump, especially on trade, even if for Beijing Taiwan is completely off limits for negotiation.

“Trump is a businessman. He wants a deal,” a source with ties to the Chinese leadership said, requesting anonymity. “He wants the biggest benefit at the smallest cost.”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump threatened punitive tariffs on China and has recently repeated his criticism of Chinese trade policy, dovetailing with his Taiwan comments.

“This is provocation, but war is unlikely,” a second Chinese source with leadership ties said of Mr. Trump’s Taiwan moves.“The Chinese side will not easily yield,” the source said. “We expect tensions.”

Wang Huiyao, head of the Center for China and Globalization and a government adviser, said China should invite the United States to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

“He will pursue US interests and to do so he cannot ignore the huge benefits that come from China-US trade relations,” Mr. Wang said.

The Asian diplomat said some Chinese officials had expressed “euphoria” at Mr. Trump’s election, believing it marked the end of US dominance in the world and represented China’s chance to seize the initiative.

But Mr. Trump’s unexpected move to put the Taiwan issue center stage in relations with China had put an end to that.“They’re not as happy now,” he said.

To be sure, there are voices in China seeing opportunity in a Trump presidency.

Huo Jianguo, the former head of a trade policy body under China’s Commerce Ministry, said Mr. Trump is likely to reduce the United States’ engagement with the world, presenting an opening for China.

“Under Obama, China-US relations had already deteriorated to their worst possible level. Trump will not continue to ratchet up what were clearly ideological attempts to suppress China,” Mr. Huo said.

“China should not seek to immediately take the lead in global governance. They should first lead Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to become successful, then from here China’s global influence can take root,” Mr. Huo said, referring to a Southeast Asian-backed free trade deal China has championed.

Even the Global Times, an influential and normally stridently nationalistic tabloid, has sought to temper expectations on how China could use a Trump presidency to its advantage.

“China still cannot match the US in terms of comprehensive strength,” it said in an editorial. “It has no ability to lead the world in an overall way, plus, neither the world nor China is psychologically ready for it.

“It’s beyond imagination to think that China could replace the US to lead the world.” –Reuters

A new start for old neighbours (Malaysia-Singapore)


December 21, 2016

Sharing the cost of building HSR

http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2016/12/21/sharing-the-cost-of-building-hsr/

Image result for Kadir Mohamed-- Fifty Years Malaysia-Singapore Relations

I READ with great interest “HSR helps move things on right track” by Mohd Nur Ismal Mohamed Kamal, Chief Executive Officer of MyHSR Corporation (The Star, Dec 19), his response to the commentary “A new start for old neighbours” by Mergawati Zulfakar (The Star, Dec 16).

It is very uplifting indeed to hear about all the potential spin-off benefits of the High Speed Rail (HSR) project to be undertaken by Malaysia and Singapore.

In the first place, however, the people of Malaysia are equally keen to know the cost of implementation of the project. More precisely, people want to know which side pays for what.

The reply by the CEO of MyHSR sounds very much like laying out the arguments that since Malaysia will make all the gains that he has described, Malaysia must be ready to pay for the bulk of the cost of implementation.

I certainly hope this is not what he implied. I feel that in this matter the question of which side shall make how much profit out of the HSR project must also be taken into account in determining the formula for sharing the cost of implementation.

KADIR MOHAMAD

Author, Malaysia-Singapore: Fifty Years of Contentions, 1965-2015

A new start for old neighbours

by Mergawati Zulfakar@www.thestar.com.my

Durian diplomacy: Najib checking out the Musang King durian on display during the Malaysia Agrobazaar in Singapore in 2014 as Lee and his wife Ho Ching look on. —Bernama

Durian diplomacy: Najib checking out the Musang King durian on display during the Malaysia Agrobazaar in Singapore in 2014 as Lee and his wife Ho Ching look on. —Bernama

IT would be hard to ignore the fact that bi­­lateral ties between Malaysia and Singapore were thorny for decades.

For many years, there was mistrust among officials, ministers and leaders, especially when they tried to resolve outstanding issues including the KTM Bhd land in Singapore, sale of water from Johor and a new bridge to replace the Causeway.

The animosity was evident, so much so that during the signing of a special agreement to refer a disputed island (Batu Puteh/Pedra Branca) to an international court 13 years ago, the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Singapore got into a verbal sparring match as they tried to explain each country’s stand on exercising their rights over the rocky island.

Sure, they cracked jokes with each other during the lunch that followed, but for many who witnessed the sparring during an event that was broadcast live on RTM, it was evident relations were not well. It was undiplomatic and ugly.

  It was a roller-coaster ride for bilateral relations and an unpleasant one between countries deeply divided on issues.

Fast forward to 2016. It is ironic that today, the love for a thorny fruit has, in a way, brought ties onto a stronger and firmer footing. Durian diplomacy seems to work the magic to put ties back on track.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s “obsession” for durian is well known and during one working trip to Malaysia, one of the first things he asked about on arrival was the Musang King durian.

When he became Prime Minister in 2009, Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak made it clear he wanted a bilateral relationship that is bold, imaginative and courageous.

“If we take the attitude that as members of a new generation, that both Prime Minister Lee and I are young, we’re not part of that generation, we should not be encumbered with the baggage of history,” Najib had said.

The two leaders struck a personal close relationship over the years and this has made things a lot easier to manage. On Tuesday, as the two leaders attended the seventh leaders’ retreat, history was made again by the signing of the bilateral agreement to construct the high-speed rail line between Jurong East and Bandar Malaysia.

Much has been said about the project, which was only brought to the table in 2013.

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The “marquee project” will bring the two countries closer together, improve connecti­vity, deepen people-to-people ties and catalyse further economic cooperation.

The vibes are definitely good between the leaders and it has a spiral effect on the ministers and officials, too.

Yes, gone are the days of confrontations, the language used is different and the talk now is more on cooperation. Putrajaya’s less confrontational approach in dealing with Singapore is bearing fruit.

Yet, we need to be reminded that while several issues have been resolved, including the Points of Agreement on KTM land in Singapore, resulting in joint venture projects between Khazanah Nasional and Temasek Holdings in Singapore and Iskandar, there are still many issues on the table.

In any negotiations, despite the good vibes that are flowing across the Causeway, Malay­sia should never take Singapore for granted.

A Malaysian official was rather blunt when he said that Singapore still plays hardball when it matters.“Their DNA hasn’t changed. What they stand for hasn’t changed. What you see is never what you get,” the official added.

Over the years, Malaysian officials who have had dealings with Singapore agree on this – their counterparts will ask, “What will Singapore get?”.

“Charity is not in their vocabulary, forget about the spirit of neighbourliness,” said an official.

Back to the HSR project that is targeted to start service in 10 years: we know it will cut travel time to 90 minutes, we know it is supposed to spin economic activities along the stations and we know the project, the first of its kind in the region, is being followed closely by other countries wanting a piece of the multi-billion project.

The two leaders keep saying the HSR is a game changer but what we want to know is, exactly how are citizens going to benefit?

Firstly, the fare, already speculated to be hundreds of ringgit between Bandar Malaysia and Singapore, is an amount that only business people may be willing to pay. It may be too steep for ordinary citizens.

The service will benefit a certain population and group of people, but what about the larger population? Are there any real conversations on efforts to create jobs in the smaller towns that the train passes by?

Will the agency tasked to create economic activities have a conversation with Singapore on what sort of businesses can be set up so that the Government can spur economic growth along the corridor?

Is Singapore willing to relocate factories so that people do not have to travel all the way there for work? After all, it will help relieve congestion at the border crossings, something Singapore has always wanted.

While the Land Public Transport Commis­sion and MyHSR are dealing with their Singa­pore counterparts on the HSR, there must be parallel negotiations on the economic impact to the people living along the rail line.

“If you are not going to ask from them, Singapore will not volunteer and negotiate what Malaysia wants,” said an official. “Singapore is a small country and they know they can only go so far,” he said.

“So what do you do? They actually need us, their neighbours and we are the most immediate.They have a glossy veneer and if you don’t cut through, you don’t see the ‘naughtiness’. They look polite and professional but yet they are waiting to ‘kill you’ off.”

But is Malaysia ruthless enough and willing to take advantage of the situation? Maybe Malaysians do not have that kind of DNA but we must bear in mind that when others sense you are weak, they will go for the kill.

At the end of the day, Malaysia-Singapore ties must be really a win-win situation and not just to make one country flourish. Isn’t it better to survive together, especially in this challenging and changing global environment?