Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Malaysia-Singapore Relations: Retrospect and Prospect

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Malaysia-Singapore Relations: Retrospect and Prospect

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article on Malaysia--Singapore bilateral relations proceeds on the assumption that the key issues involved are better analysed and evaluated within the framework of political realism. Indeed, Sheldon Simon, an American specialist on Southeast Asia, offers a pertinent observation: "Realism (or self-help) will continue as an important analytical framework for understanding Southeast Asian security because individual states still have unresolved conflicts with each other and because no consensus exists whether external threats to regional order exist or who they may be." (1)

Foreign policies pursued essentially within a state-centric framework tend to endorse the realist paradigm, while efforts to build regional political, economic, and security institutions for mutual gain, although at an incipient stage, also suggest that neo-liberalist tendencies coexist with the realist approach to national security and regional advancement. (2) This co-existence of apparently divergent political perspectives -- the former stressing politics as a zero-sum game and the latter focusing more on state capabilities and potential to achieve security and prosperity through co-operation rather than conflict - tends to better explain the dynamics of --Malaysia-Singapore relations. The foreign policy interests, strategies, and expected outcomes of the two neighbours, and especially for the island-republic since its independence in 1965, reflect an appreciation based on power considerations as, in this anarchic world, the best and historically proven approach has been self-help. As Michael Leifer has o bserved: "The rhetoric of government [in Singapore] registers a belief in the premises of the realist paradigm in International Relations, whereby states are obliged to fend for themselves as best they can in an ungoverned and hostile world." (3) While international institutions and diplomacy do provide some measure of comfort, they are secondary instruments to policies and capabilities designed to ensure national security and survival. Indeed, in this context, it is useful to depart from traditional Morgenthau-oriented realism with its emphasis on individual actors, and consider also the impact of system and structure on state behaviour as argued by neo-realists. Members of this latter school maintain that the international system has a precisely defined structure with three important characteristics: (1) the ordering principle of the system, which is anarchic as opposed to hierarchic as in domestic systems; (2) the identical character of units in the system, that is, all states are made functionally similar by the constraints of structure, thereby compelling states to pursue security first before they can perform other functions; and (3) although states are functionally similar, they differ vastly in their capabilities, hence the concept of "superpowers", "major powers", "middle powers", and "small powers". (4)

Given its geopolitical size and location, Singapore's survival strategy tends to focus on a very strong and robust deterrence to any threats arising from what it sees as a Malay/Muslim world in its midst. Thus, analysts of Singapore's foreign policy have tended to use criteria that are more appropriate to the realist paradigm of international politics with its focus on elements of national power. For instance, N. Canes an explicates Singapore's "foreign policy terrain" in terms of four major constraints: (1) vulnerability and the sovereignty principle, (2) demography, (3) strategic location, and (4) resource base -- all of which arguably constitute explicit or implicit inputs into the foreign policy formulation process of any government in Singapore, past, present and future. (5) To be sure, these criteria are equally relevant to Malaysian foreign policy formulation, but with the exception that while Singapore's quest for survival identifies its immediate "Malay" neighbours as threats, Malaysia predicates it s survival and advancement in broader balance-of-power terms. …

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