When there is no baggage…

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By Tan Bah Bah

Relations between Singapore and Malaysia have not always been smooth. But they have now entered if not exactly a BFF (Best Friends Forever) but a GNF (Good Neighbours Forever) stage. Two men have made this potentially very positive phase possible.

When Najib Razak became Malaysian Prime Minister in 2009, more windows of  opportunities started to open. He and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong began their yearly Leaders Retreat in 2010 to take stock of bilateral ties and discuss areas of further cooperation. They have had four such institutionalised meetings so far and out of these a couple of major projects have emerged or been given the highest-level impetus.

The high-profile Iskandar Malaysia project in Johor is an exciting venture. It is achievable, with obvious tangible benefits, unlike some over-ambitious or even bizarre past plans. For example, up to now, observers on both sides of the Singapore Straits are unclear what a previous proposal to build a crooked bridge between Johor and Singapore is all about. And is the growth triangle involving Singapore, Johor and the Riau Islands province of Indonesia still functioning? Or is that part of a larger scheme of things? We have not heard much of the triangle lately.

Perhaps an even more exciting project will be the high-speed rail link ‘mooted some months back by Najib’, in the the words of Lee who was gracious in acknowledging the proposer.

The high-speed rail link will also complement another rail project- the Rapid Transit System Link- that will link Johor Bahru in southern Malaysia to Singapore’s local trains along the upcoming Thomson Line that is expected to be ready by 2019.

In the longer term, both sides will also look into the possibility of a third road link between the two countries.

The deadline for the high-speed link  is 2020 but there are details of costs, construction and choice of destination sites to work out.

Lee said: “It’s a strategic project for the two countries. It will change the way we see each other.”

He cited the Eurostar link between Paris and London, which transformed “two European cities into one virtual urban community” as a model for the KL-SG link.

Najib’s comment was: “It will be seamless in every sense of the word. Within a mere 90 minutes from door to door, people can travel from KL to Singapore and vice versa.”

This game-changing project is, I think, irresistible. Just think of the mind-boggling economic nexus that will emerge which will make the Singapore-KL hub or corridor one of Asia’s busiest.

These two leaders are likely to see it through and, in so doing, sweep away all the scraps of contention and distrust of years gone by.

Lee and Najib carry no baggage.

They are not part of a generation of older leaders who had clashed with one another when Singapore and Malaysia were one. They have no memories of bitter words thrown at one another in the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysian Parliament) or in political rallies.

Today’s Singaporeans and Malaysians do not follow the politics of each other that closely. How many Singaporeans know who the MP for Lembah Pantai in Malaysia is? Bangsar, of which the People’s Action Party once had an MP – is now part of Lembah Pantai, which is represented by the Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. For that matter, how many Malaysians know who the MP for Hougang in Singapore is?

The direction of Singapore-KL relations now emerging out of a more comfortable personal relationship between the two leaders is very promising. The body language in press photographs shows a picture of trust.

Having two self-confident heads of government with impeccable credentials and a growing trust in each other says we are in for a constructive working environment to push the dreams of both Malaysians and Singaporeans.

‘I can live in one city, I can work on the other side, I can come back the same day.’

Yes, we all can. Malaysia-Singapore boleh.