Mar 16, 2007

Singapore and neighbors just can't get along

Tun Mahathir Mohamad : "Singapore doesn't really care about the opinion of its neighbors. Singapore believes the most important thing is what profits Singapore."

(IHT) Some countries have strategic oil reserves; others stockpile rice or wheat. The island nation of Singapore has emergency reserves of imported sand.

The sand is there to secure Singapore's insatiable demand for concrete, a reminder of Singapore's vulnerability as a nation without a hinterland to supply it with vital resources.

Singapore's government is now being forced to tap its sand hoard after its usual supplier, Indonesia, abruptly banned exports in February, citing the impact of a recent Singapore construction boom on its beaches and island environments.

The ban touched off the latest in a string of disputes between Singapore and its neighbors over water, land reclamation, satellite concessions, corporate takeovers and the flight patterns of the Singaporean Air Force — just to name a few.

A Malaysian politician has blamed Singapore for worsening floods in his constituency. A top Indonesian politician has appealed for the recall of Singapore's ambassador. The general in Thailand who led the coup there last September has accused Singapore of tapping his phones.

Tiffs between Singapore and its neighbors are nothing new, and analysts say the latest dust-ups are unlikely to seriously harm relations.

But the analysts say that the recent quarrels highlight the fissures that continue to thwart the region's ability to compete collectively against the economies of India and China.

If Singapore and its neighbors cannot agree to share such basic resources as sand and water, they say, the dream of a single market by 2015 — the stated goal of the 10-member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — may be illusory.

"They're more competitive with each other than natural allies," said Robert Broadfoot, managing director of the Political & Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong.

The disputes also raise questions about Singapore's drive to expand its investments in the region. Singapore's advances appear to be aggravating what might be described as a personality conflict between what is one of the world's richest countries and its much larger, but much poorer, neighbors.

"We see Singapore in two ways," said Drajad Wibowo, a legislator from Indonesia's National Mandate Party. "On one hand as a role model for development; on the other hand, many see Singapore as an arrogant economic giant, which is prepared to use its financial muscle to undermine neighboring countries."

Singapore's problems with its neighbors are as old as the country itself. Independence in 1965 came about after it was ejected by Malaysia.

Singapore's leaders took advantage of their city's historic role as a trading post to lure investment and manufacturing, vaulting Singapore within 20 years to the ranks of the world's most affluent nations — and breezing past Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand along the way.

While its shrewdness has prompted frequent comparisons to Switzerland, some say its assertiveness places it closer to Israel. In his memoirs, Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, said his goal "was to leapfrog the region, as the Israelis had done."

Like Israel, Singapore is an ethnic anomaly, a predominantly Chinese population in a predominantly Malay region. Indeed, Singapore even sought advice from Israel on how to build its defenses after independence. As such, Singapore has become a magnet for ethnic Chinese talent and wealth from around Southeast Asia.

But while Singapore is part of the region, it often seems to be apart from it. In a region where politics are ruled by nuance and consensus, they say, Singapore can be self-servingly rational, legalistic and seemingly tone-deaf to local sensitivities.

"Singapore doesn't really care about the opinion of its neighbors," the former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad said to a Thai television station in January. "Singapore believes the most important thing is what profits Singapore."

"Their values and their efficiency don't export well," said Broadfoot.

Singapore's officials, for the most part, are not apologetic.

"For Singapore, the rule of law and the protection of property are absolutely important from the days we were established as a trading post for the British East India Company," said Foreign Minister George Yeo in a written response to questions. "Why else would this piece of rock, amidst thousands scattered in the archipelago, flourish?"

In Singapore's Parliament, legislators recently complained that Singapore was being picked on unfairly. One member of Parliament blasted efforts by neighbors to make Singapore a "scapegoat for their own domestic troubles."

But as the disputes accumulate there are also voices in Singapore calling for a change of approach.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Haw many Indonesian workers employed by Singapore companies in their Shipyards, construction industries and others.
The answer is none.No opportunity was given to Indonesians to earn living in Singapore.
However you can find easily UNSKILLED workers from China, Macau, Bangladesh and others.
They are greedy to import sands but they refused to help male Indonesians to build their capability.
WHY !!!!!!