‘New Malaysia’ makes Singapore look outdated

July 10, 2018

‘New Malaysia’ makes Singapore look outdated

by Dr.Bridget Welsh


Mahathir’s triumph exposes shortcomings of city-state’s one-party rule

Over two months after Mahathir Mohamad’s election in Malaysia, the political reverberations for Singapore show no signs of fading.

The new Malaysian Prime Minister’s reviews of the key water-supply deal with Singapore and of the planned costly high-speed rail link from Kuala Lumpur to the city-state are only visible signs of a different — and more charged — Singapore-Malaysia relationship.

The key problem for Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) is that developments north of the Johor-Singapore Causeway have exposed vulnerabilities at home. The PAP has become the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia, and it no longer has undemocratic immediate neighbors. Mahathir’s Pakatan victory mirrors the PAP’s worst fear: its own possible defeat.

Worse yet, some of the factors that contributed to the loss of Barisan Nasional (National Front) are also present in Singapore. The first is the challenge of leadership renewal. Over the past three years, the PAP has been locked in a battle over who should succeed Lee, 66, as prime minister, with the fourth generation (4G) leaders on display.

Among the leading contenders are Chan Chun Sing, the Minister for Trade and Industry and former army chief, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, former Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Ong Ye Kung, the Minister of Education and Second Defense Minister.

The problem is that these leaders are 4G without the connectivity. They are in a highly elitist party, largely unable to relate to ordinary Singaporeans. 4G leaders also suffer from the same issue that haunted the National Front, namely they are embedded in the system. Emerging from within the party and government, particularly the military, they are from the system and are seen to be for the system. The intertwining of the PAP and the bureaucratic state has created singular agendas and resulted in a distancing from the electorate and its needs.

For the first two decades of Singapore’s existence after independence in 1959, PAP secured all the seats in the legislative assembly. Since 1984, opposition politicians have won seats despite what the government’s critics describe as the sustained political harassment of opponents and the repression of public protests, combined with the alleged manipulation of electoral boundaries.

In the last election in 2015, PAP secured 83 out of 89 seats with 70% of the vote. Since that resounding victory, more conservative forces within the party have gained ground. Despite their popularity, reform-minded leaders such as Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Tan Chuan-Jin have been pushed aside in favor of conservative alternatives. At the same time, Singapore’s system has moved in a more authoritarian direction, with curbs on social media and attacks on civil society activists.

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Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Prime Minister Lee, the son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, is making the same mistake Najib did after the 2013 polls. He is depriving the system of a necessary valve for dissent, and moving the country away from needed reforms. He has failed to recognize that greater openness and policy reforms were integral parts of the PAP’s 2015 victory. The dominant mode has been to attack the Worker’s Party, its leaders and other opposition figures. These moves do not show confidence in a more open and mature political system — or even in the PAP itself.

At the same time, rather than being an asset to his party, Lee is becoming more of a liability. This is the same trajectory that occurred for Najib. Questions have been raised about Lee’s leadership from the very public “Oxleygate” row with his siblings over their father’s home to the managing of Temasek, the republic’s sovereign wealth fund, by his wife Ho Ching.

Singapore’s handling of scandal over 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the Malaysian state-run investment fund which saw millions of dollars siphoned out on Najib’s watch, will be in the more immediate bilateral spotlight; assessments will be made as to whether Singapore responded effectively to the alleged malfeasance and whether in fact Singapore’s purchase of 1MDB bonds strengthened the fund.

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Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Mahathir’s readiness to deal with 1MDB signals a willingness not only to clean up the system but to begin much-needed economic reform. Singaporeans will see obvious parallels with their own country’s economic policies.

Singapore’s gross domestic product growth is expected to reach 3% this year, which is a significant drop from a decade ago. Importantly, much of this growth is being driven by public spending (as occurred in Malaysia under Najib), notably on infrastructure. New jobs are not being created in Singapore at the same high rate as in the past. Even more constraining, PAP continues to rely on immigration as a driver of growth, failing to move on from using a combination of low-cost labor and imported foreign talent to expand the economy. Population pressures remain real for ordinary Singaporeans, who continue to feel displaced. They are disappointed with the PAP’s tenacious grasp on old and unpopular models for growth.

The pendulum of discontent has swung against the PAP. The government opted to increase water prices by 30% in 2017, and this year indicated it will raise the goods and services tax (GST) from 7% to 9%. The electricity tariff has risen by 16.8% to date this year alone. The cost of living remains high; Singapore has topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of most expensive cities to live in for five years running. High costs are compounded by persistent inequalities that are increasingly entrenched. The Gini coefficient is at 0.46, but income gaps are deeply felt. Many locals feel they are being impoverished on account of foreigners. The social reform measures introduced for the “pioneer generation” (people born before 1950), and increased handouts before the 2015 polls, are being seen as inadequate to address the current social needs of disadvantaged communities.

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Changes in Malaysia have reduced Singapore’s regional comparative advantage. It is not just about greater democracy and changes in governance next door but also the attention “New Malaysia” draws to how Singapore has remained locked in the past, moving away from embracing an alternative future.–Bridget Welsh

By comparison, Malaysia has removed the unpopular GST, and reform pressures for addressing contracting social mobility and inequality are substantial. Malaysia is now seen as a potential role model in areas of governance. For example, greater transparency and attention to inclusivity are evident in the multi-ethnicity of new government appointees. Singapore’s 2017 Malay-only presidency contest in contrast sent a signal of exclusion and an embrace of race-based politics. This is being compounded by the fact that Malaysia is being seen as bucking regional authoritarian trends, promising substantive political reforms and the removal of many of the draconian laws that Singapore has on its books.

Changes in Malaysia have reduced Singapore’s regional comparative advantage. It is not just about greater democracy and changes in governance next door but also the attention “New Malaysia” draws to how Singapore has remained locked in the past, moving away from embracing an alternative future.

Bridget Welsh is associate professor of political science at John Cabot University, Rome


Mahathir Mohamad and Narendra Modi Meet in Kuala Lumpur : Better Times Ahead with Act East India

May 31, 2018

Mahathir Mohamad and Narendra Modi Meet in Kuala Lumpur : Better Times Ahead with Act East India

by Debasis Dash@ http://global-is-asian.nus.edu.sg

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India’s Act East Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Malaysia’s Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

(Tun Dr.) Mahathir Mohamad shocked the world by ending the 61-year reign of the ruling Barisan Nasional. The shocking election results bears resemblance to the Modi Wave which took place during the 2014 general elections in India. Then, a struggling national political alternative, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over the helms of national affairs with a striking majority beyond the safety margin of two-third mark rule. Was it really a shock? If one listened hard enough, the signaling of an impending storm was felt in the dusty streets of Varanasi and along the countless tea stalls. Those were the places where people from lower rungs of society convened and influenced the minds of their likes. The masses dominated votes and drowned out the elites.

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His Holiness the Dalai Lama Congratulates Malaysia’s 7th Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

In Malaysia, this signal was of 92 year old Mahathir announcing his battle plans before the much awaited GE 14. This came as a surprise to many. Barisan Nasional (BN) has a long history that dates back to the nation’s post-independence, weaving people from three major races into a single thread. However, the party was unable to keep its momentum alive despite playing on its personality-based popularity. This is evident from the fact that, even after two decades of ruling experience by BN, Mahathir with his alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH) was able to overthrow BN’s leadership.

Signaling of an Impending Storm

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GE-14–Malaysia’s Hibiscus Revolution?

The signal was clear to me when I spoke with people from different walks of life. This was exactly the case with (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi whose political charisma and persona, was able to secure BJP’s resounding victory in India’s last general elections. However, the two leaders have similarities when it comes to geopolitical realities and their influence on domestic economic health. Both are political realists and don’t like to mince their words.

In his interviews, Mahathir was clear enough to check rampant Chinese investments happening in different parts of Malaysia and to take a realistic assessment of their economic value and influence on nation’s fiscal discipline. He also spoke of influx of labors from China and their employment in key construction activities without hiring local people. His views in this area also garnered support from his followers.

Keeping China in Check

In the sleepy town of Malacca, I came across some of Mahathir’s followers who were concerned about the level of dredging activities carried out by Chinese investment companies. This sort of concern is notable, when similar complaints are being heard from different parts of Indo-Pacific. The strategy of diplomatic arm twisting through financial investments into projects with questionable economic utility has become a new norm in China’s rule book. This is in line with China’s grand strategy. Under Modi’s leadership, India has been quite proactive on all fronts to counter the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. With Mahathir’s return to power, there is hope that his pragmatic views would find reverberation with India’s Act East policy and help check China’s growing influence in the region.

Malaysia: The Way Forward

It is also expected that his immediate priorities would involve strengthening the underperforming economy and infusion fiscal discipline to check rising inflation. Besides that, he has to deal with his poll promise of winding off the controversial goods and services tax (GST) with that of a viable alternative sales and services tax regime. Another challenge for him would be to reconcile the differences between the three different races and lead them into a modern society beyond the rhetoric of “Satu Malaysia”.

Debasis Dash is a Graduate Student (Strategic and Defense Studies) at the Dept. of International & Strategic Studies from University Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia-Singapore Ties– Good But New Challenges Ahead

February 28, 2018

Malaysia-Singapore Ties– Good But New Challenges Ahead

by David Han, RSIS


The governments under Lee and Najib have the same commitment to foreign policy based on pragmatism and international norms. These shared diplomatic principles bode well for the future of Singapore–Malaysia relations. But it would be simplistic to view Singapore–Malaysia ties as existing without any challenges.–David Han

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The eighth Singapore–Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat held in Singapore from 14 to 15 January 2018 witnessed a milestone in bilateral ties. Leaders of both countries signed an agreement to build a rapid transit system linking Johor Bahru and Singapore, and officially launched the Marina One and Duo joint developments. But new challenges threaten to test relations between the two neighbours.

Leaders envisage that the rapid transit system’s rail services will ease congestion on the Johor–Singapore Causeway and enhance cross-border economic cooperation. Marina One and Duo, located on prime Singapore real estate in the Marina Bay financial centre and Bugis respectively, seek to tap into property and commercial markets.

Symbolically, the projects underscore the interdependence between Singapore and Malaysia. They are the results of a nearly decade-long effort by both governments to put aside their previous acrimony and find viable solutions to ongoing bilateral spats.

Of course, the currently healthy state of bilateral ties is not entirely dependent upon these two deals. The more ambitious Iskandar Malaysia development project, which aims to transform Southern Johor into a thriving economic zone, is another key motivator for both countries to maintain strong ties. Neither side wants bilateral contentions to disrupt the lucrative benefits of Iskandar.

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These developments mark a clear shift away from the strained relations that prevailed during the Mahathir era. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak summed it up aptly when he remarked that the two countries should cease engaging in ‘confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric’. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes the transit agreement’s legally binding nature will connect succeeding generations of leaders.

For a time, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy cast a spotlight on matters of transparency and accountability in joint collaborations such as the Kuala Lumpur–Singapore High-Speed Rail. But Singapore authorities took firm action against financial institutions implicated in the scandal, including several banks. Thanks to Singapore’s actions to preserve the integrity of bilateral cooperation, 1MBD did not sour ties between the two countries.

The governments under Lee and Najib have the same commitment to foreign policy based on pragmatism and international norms. These shared diplomatic principles bode well for the future of Singapore–Malaysia relations. But it would be simplistic to view Singapore–Malaysia ties as existing without any challenges.

A case in point is the growing Johor–Kuala Lumpur rivalry. Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Ismail has been openly critical about several major political, social and economic issues in Malaysia. He is not alone: other Sultans in Malaysia have been voicing similar concerns over mounting domestic problems in recent years. The outspokenness of Malaysia’s monarchs indicates a rare deviation from their largely symbolic role, in which they rarely engage directly in political affairs.

Observers have interpreted this deviation as an attempt by the monarchs to gradually regain their former authority and influence, which were curtailed by the 1993 constitutional amendment that took away their veto powers and restricted their legal immunity. The Johor Sultan’s call for this amendment to be rescinded could be a flexing of political muscle.

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Singapore relations.  Before the rapid transit system agreement was signed, he was critical of the link’s original curved design (though he supported the overall project). The Sultan remarked that the design would not only be costly and impractical, but also mar the skyline of Johor Bahru. The bridge was consequently redesigned to be straight. The Sultan also called for greater involvement by the Johor state government in the project.

Cross-border issues have been and will increasingly be an unavoidable part of bilateral ties. Some of these issues centre on particularly close people-to-people traffic between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Tensions are likely to arise from sources such as race relations, labour standards and transnational crime.


Meanwhile, Malaysia will hold its 14th general election in the middle of 2018. The Najib government has risen above its political quagmire and is likely to win the upcoming election. Some have speculated that if the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan seizes power, its leader and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad might unravel bilateral ties. But Pakatan Harapan is a fragile group plagued with its own problems. Its chances of victory are very slim.

On the other side of the causeway, a new Singapore Prime Minister could be in office after the election due in 2021. But Prime Minister Lee has expressed that more time is needed to prepare his successor and the fourth-generation leadership. These developments would mean leadership continuity in both Malaysia and Singapore, which would ensure that bilateral ties remain at the healthy status quo — at least in the short term.

David Han is a Senior Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


The Guardian view on Donald Trump: bullies never respect sycophants

December 4, 2017

Stop the state visit. Britain should not allow the US President’s racism to be dressed up in pageantry
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In Asia, only Duterte of the Philippines can give Trump the Obama Treatment he deserves. Theresa May is too polite and decent. This Guardian opinion reflects of the elegance and sophistication of British journalism. 


All relationships have boundaries. Those between nations can be particularly fraught, freighted with ties forged in history and culture. In diplomacy the manners, customs and morals of others need to be acknowledged and respected. But humanity begins with acts, not just with thoughts. The question is how to deal with a man like Donald Trump, a taunting braggart with a weakness for flattery? The stakes are high: when nations fall out, people get hurt. By using social media as a flame-thrower, Mr Trump uses words as weapons. He does not care who gets burned.

In retweeting anti-Muslim video clips promoted by a leader of a far-right fringe group in Britain and then rounding on the prime minister for reproaching him, Mr Trump proves again that he panders to bigots and is no friend of this country. This is an important – and dangerous – moment for Britain as it launches itself into the choppy waters of Brexit. The vain hope of politicians who pushed for this nation’s exit from the European Union was that we could hitch ourselves to the United States.

True, the US is Britain’s most important partner on the global stage. As nations we have a sense of shared values and a long history together. Both have worked to uphold the international rules-based system. After the end of the cold war it was a partnership, along with others, that guaranteed a short period of relative peace. What was not taken sufficiently into account was that this was not only a physical equilibrium but also a moral one.

Mr Trump has few morals. He is a thuggish narcissist who is no respecter of Britain’s national security and well being. After the London Bridge attack in June, he went after the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, for urging, quite reasonably, calm. He attacked Scotland Yard, in September, for not being “proactive” after a terrorist bomb failed to detonate in London. Then, as now, Theresa May rebuked the US president. It was the right thing to do. The prime minister should go further and withdraw the invitation for a state visit. Bullies never respect sycophants. Britain should not allow Mr Trump’s racism to be dressed up in pageantry. Mr Trump’s strategy is to stoke a climate of paranoia, both at home and abroad. He seeks advantage in the politics of division and hate. He operates by instinct rather than sober analysis.

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Maggie–Reagan partnership was based on mutual respect and admiration. Trump tried to bully May but got strong rebuke from the  Prime Minister with the backing of the proud British people and the media.

The truth is that Mr Trump has no respect for the basic rights that are the foundation of democracy. Nor does he care for the decency necessary to sustain citizenship. Democracy cannot survive without letting reasonable debate bring the truth to light. Instead Mr Trump appears to have nothing but contempt for our intelligence. For the US president the show is all about one man. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, looks set to be replaced by a cheerleader for Trumpism. Mr Tillerson’s error was to realise what everyone suspects: his boss was, in his own reported words, a “moron”.

As a former British Prime Minister wisely noted, “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”. Britain must have a relationship with the United States, just as we have relationships with unsavoury regimes which are tempered by the understanding that we do not share their scruples. Our own foolishness means that we are no longer useful as a bridge to Europe.

The longer Mr Trump is in office, the more America’s folkways will become unfamiliar to Britain. Like all relationships, Britain and America’s will experience rocky times. We are living through one of them. With Mr Trump in the White House the US has become flighty when it comes to “special” relationships, heaping praise on America’s adversaries and downgrading ties with allies. To be credible our bond needs to be grounded in self-respect. Speaking the truth may be difficult, but that is what friends are for.

Cambodia-North Korea relations are cool at best

July 10, 2017

Cambodia-North Korea relations are cool at best

By Michele Penna@www.asiasentinel.com

With its white walls shimmering under the tropical sun and its yellow roof pointing towards the sky, the Angkor Panorama Museum (pic below) could be an awkward shopping mall stranded on the outskirts of Siem Reap, the provincial city on Tonle Sap, 320 km from the capital Phnom Penh. Instead, it is a brick-and-mortar testament to the quiet friendship between Cambodia and North Korea.

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The complex was built by the Mansudae Art Studio – a North Korean art group which describes itself as “probably the largest art studio in the world” – at an estimated US$24 million, although the price tag is not clear. As the official line goes, it is a space commemorating the fasts of the ancient Angkor civilization, featuring a 123 meter-long, 13-meter-high painting depicting life eight centuries ago. There are as many as 45,000 characters in it, which is one reason why leaflets handed out at the entrance claim that “the panorama is, absolutely, a masterpiece that will be remembered forever.”

The imposing building is a telling sign of the special relationship that once existed between the two countries, whose roots hark back to the 1960s, when Norodom Sihanouk, then Cambodia’s King, met Kim Il-sung, the late, Great Leader of North Korea. A friendship began to develop, growing stronger as Cambodia descended into the chaos of war and revolution.

When Sihanouk went into exile, the North Korean authorities remained close to him and even built him a 60-room palace close to Pyongyang – something the king never forgot. In his autobiography Sihanouk describes Kim Il-sung as “my surest and most sincere friend and the most steadfast in my support. Even more than a friend: a true brother and my only ‘true relative’ after the death of my mother.” In a 1985 interview with the New York Times he was already referring to the Korean leader as “more than a friend, more than a brother.”

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The Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which was opened to the public back in December 2015, transports visitors back in time with its ‘Panoramic Hall.’ Funded by North Korea, it may well be one of the biggest overseas projects the country has ever taken on.

The ‘Panoramic Hall’ features a mural that is 120 metres long and 13 metres high, offering a 360 degree experience of the Angkorian period, which began in 802 through to 1431.

Although Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and the Cambodian monarchy is now little more than a ceremonial institution, both sides still make an effort to show they get along fine. In early May, the North Korean Ambassador told Khmer Times that the country he represents is seeking Phnom Penh’s help in spearheading its cause with other members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Cambodia have good relations and a history of supporting each other,” he told reporters. “I am confident that Cambodia, as a friend, really understands the tensions on the Korean peninsula and would express solidarity through ASEAN towards our just cause to help find a solution diplomatically to maintain stability and peace in our country.”

Only days later Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a former Pime Minister, said he would soon pay a visit to the Hermit Kingdom to seek to ease tensions on the peninsula.

But being close to North Korea can easily turn embarrassing. The country has kidnapped foreigners, organized terrorist attacks and printed fake currency. The most recent scandal involved Otto Warm bier, an American student arrested last year for stealing a propaganda poster and condemned to 15 years of hard labor. Warmbier had been detained for a year and half when he was sent home in a coma. He died shortly after, without any explanation from the authorities in Pyongyang.

North Korean shenanigans have hit close to the Cambodian authorities, too. In 1996, Yoshimi Tanaka, a member of the Japanese Red Army who had hijacked a plane in 1970, was arrested while trying to cross from Cambodia into Vietnam. He had reportedly been helped by the North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh, which is housed in a villa next to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own mansion.

Six years later the ties between the two countries were again under scrutiny, as the North Korean vessel So San was caught carrying 15 Scud missiles destined to Yemen. The freighter was registered in Cambodia under the now-defunct Cambodian Shipping Corporation (CSC), a flag of convenience system set up in the 1990s to raise funds. Such schemes, which plenty of countries have deployed, allow a vessel to be registered in a foreign nation for a fee and have been extensively blamed for hiding all sorts of dirty secrets. Among CSC’s managers were Cambodian political figures as well as a North Korean diplomat.

Cooling bilateral relations further is the simple fact that, while Phnom Penh may not want to waste its connections with Pyongyang, Cambodia is not going to let North Korea get in the way of its new interests. Leaked US cables, for example, show Cambodian authorities have actively cooperated in handling North Korean defectors who seek refuge abroad – something which the Hermit Kingdom sees as a “crime of treachery against the nation.”

A conversation dating from 2006 quotes the Prime Minister’s adviser Om Yentieng as dismissing concerns that a public exposure of Phnom Penh’s dealings with the United States in managing refugees would harm bilateral relations with North Korea. Somewhat paradoxically, however, he worried that such occurrence might put the security of Mr. Hun Sen in jeopardy.

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“He did register some concern over the PM’s safety due to the proximity of the North Korean Embassy to the PM’s residence – should USG-RGC cooperation on North Korean refugees become public knowledge,” the cable reads.

These days, what remains of the old friendship are places like the Angkor museum – which upon closer inspection looks just like another way of making money. Only one third of the space in the building provides information on the temples, mostly in the form of pictures. The rest is a flea market stuffed with paintings and memorabilia. That almost everything there is on sale — at prices ranging from US$5 to over US$1000 – is a sign of how desperate sanction-laden North Korea is for hard currency.

Restaurants are also helping the regime make ends meet. Pyongyang, right in the middle of the capital, is one of four eateries set up in Cambodia by the North Koreans. Here professionally trained and smartly outfitted waitresses smile at customers, carrying dishes of dumplings in broth, fish and expensive liquors. All is done in Korean traditional costumes. About mid-dinner the lights go off for a show. The waitresses, who no doubt are selected for their beauty as well as their loyalty to the regime, dash to the stage and start singing and dancing. One swirls around with a jar balanced on her head. Minutes later, another is playing tunes on a saxophone.

Customers have a good time. They stare. They toast. They try to snap pictures, which is forbidden. But especially they pay – certainly quite a bit of money passes through this restaurant, which during the weekend is filled to the brim with both locals and tourists. The golden days may be behind the two countries but decades after King Sihanouk and North Korea former Great Leader met, the friendship they formed keeps on bearing fruits for the Hermit Kingdom.


Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50

June 21, 2017

Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50


by  Vannarith Chheang, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung  of Vietnam (photo: Duc Tam/ VNA)

2017 marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. Both countries have organised a series of events to commemorate their time-honoured traditional friendship that is bound by strategic convergence, common vision and shared interests.

Over the past fifty years, the relationship ebbed and flowed with changing geopolitics and domestic politics in both countries before settling since 1979. Yet anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia — mainly driven by domestic politics — has constrained both countries from deepening their strategic partnership.

Cambodia’s opposition party tends to use ‘Vietnam threat’ rhetoric to gain popular support. In an attempt to delegitimise the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of the upcoming elections, former President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has posted a series of short video clips explaining the roots of the CPP and its connections with the communist party of Vietnam. But Cambodian voters are increasingly concerned about their livelihood, social justice, good governance, human rights and environmental protection much more than the Vietnam factor.

There is political cost attached to strengthening bilateral relations with Hanoi, including potentially losing votes to the opposition. Despite this, the long-ruling CPP remains committed to maintaining and enhancing the Vietnam relationship for the sake of national and regional peace and development.

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A new bridge is now linking Vietnam and Cambodia after being inaugurated on April 24, 2017 by Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Cambodian counterpart Samdech Hun Sen. The Long Binh-Chrey Thom Bridge is built over the Binh Di River and connects the provinces of An Giang in South Vietnam with Cal Dal in Cambodia. It is 442 metres long and 13 metres wide and is designed to withstand speeds of 80km/h and allow cars to cross at a speed of 80 km/h.

It is clear that Cambodia is unable to enjoy peace and development without having good and stable relations with its immediate neighbours. Both countries understand that without sticking together under the ASEAN umbrella, their regional role and leverage will be weakened. As a result, Cambodia and Vietnam’s foreign policies have both focused on regional integration and community-building.

Cambodia and Vietnam also share the concern that rivalry between major powers is threatening regional peace and stability. Learning from their Cold War experience, they must stay united to survive and thrive.

In early 2017, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Cambodia three times, including to attend the ground-breaking opening ceremony of Chrey Thom–Long Binh Bridge (connecting Cambodia and Vietnam), pay an official state visit and attend the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is planning to visit Vietnam later this month to commemorate 40th anniversary of his struggle against the Khmer Rouge regime. Such frequent high-level bilateral talks significantly contribute to nurturing political and personal trust, which are the foundations of the relationship.

Early in 2017 at the 4th Meeting on Cooperation and Development among the Border Provinces, both countries’ deputy prime ministers underscored the need to develop the Vietnam–Cambodia border area. They agreed to modernise infrastructure facilities, promote trade, investment, services and tourism and build border economic zones and markets.

Vietnam is now the fifth largest investor in Cambodia after China, South Korea, the European Union and Malaysia — it has invested in 183 projects with an aggregate value of US$2.86 billion. The investment projects target rubber plantations, telecommunications and banking. Vietnam is also Cambodia’s third largest trading partner with about US$3 billion over the last few years. They aim to achieve a US$5 billion trade volume in coming years. The planned construction of 116 warehouses at strategic border crossings between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — expected to be completed by 2035 — will improve trade flow between the two countries.

People-to-people connectivity between Vietnam and Cambodia has been markedly strengthened over the years. There are currently more than 400 Cambodian students pursuing their higher education at various universities and institutions in Vietnam. And Vietnamese are the largest group of tourists to Cambodia, accounting for 19 per cent of all visitors.

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The  Neak Loeung Bridge located in the Prey Veng Province is 2,220 metres long, 13 metres wide and 37.5 metres above the water level. It will have two wide lanes for traffic. When completed it will facilitate trade between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Looking ahead to the next fifty years, Cambodia–Vietnam relations will evolve in tandem with the speed of ASEAN community building. ASEAN provides institutional and diplomatic leverage for its member states to strategically manoeuvre and collectively hedge against major powers to minimise risks while maximising interests where possible. Collectively advocating for a rules-based regional order will help smaller countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to protect their legitimate interests.

To reduce ‘Vietnam threat’ perceptions in Cambodia, both countries need to promote engagement at all levels. Right now there is a lack of academic or intellectual dialogue between the two countries. Exchange programs among students, youth leaders, future leaders and community leaders need to be further promoted. Political parties in Cambodia should not use Vietnam for their own political gains — such a strategy is obsolete and does not fit into the evolving dynamics of ASEAN regionalism.

Differences over the management of the Mekong River and the South China Sea dispute need to be resolved the ASEAN way — through consultation and consensus. Cambodia and Vietnam might have different views on these complex issues, but they need to respect each other’s national interest and position without harming bilateral friendship and ASEAN unity.

Vannarith Chheang is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore