Opinion: Why Mahathir Hates Singapore

There is a tendency for some Singaporeans to attribute Malaysia’s antagonistic foreign policy to populism. Some think that it’s a bid by Malaysian politicians to unite the country against a common enemy. An attempt to distract Malaysians from the issues that are really plaguing their country. Bilahari Kausikan, a retired Singaporean statesman, for example, recently remarked that, “(Malaysia) have not given up – and never will – trying to tame or domesticated Singapore because unless they do so, the intrinsic shortcomings (of their system) will be highlighted”.

However, the recent airspace and maritime disputes suggests that populism might not be able to completely explain Putrajaya’s foreign policy. On one side of the causeway, the disputes have riled up Singaporeans so much, that some have even called for armed confrontation with Malaysia. On the other side however, reception to the news has been more lukewarm. Media coverage on the matter was not as extensive as in Singapore, and Malaysian internal affairs ruled the news cycle – with the ICERD mass rallies occupying most headlines. A Star Online article titled The Malaysia-Singapore maritime border spat: A chronology, for example, was shared 10 times less on Facebook than a similar Channel News Asia article. If the disputes did little to distract Malaysians from the failures of its political system, then why were they initiated in the first place?

When discussing politics and diplomacy, there is a tendency for people to ignore the personal – the relationships, the fears and the prejudices of the actors involved. As such, for a better understanding of Malaysia’s foreign policy doctrine, it might be a good idea to explore the personal views of its most senior statesman (and now Prime Minister): Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir has an almost unhealthy obsession with Singapore. Throughout his initial years in office, confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric were the norm. Even now, as the head of the Pakatan government, there are constant jabs at Singapore. He has talked about the high cost of living in Singapore, said that Singaporeans “must be tired of having the same government since independence”, and has met with prominent members of the Singaporean opposition scene. These actions and statements are beyond the scope of the bilateral relations or issues that the countries share.

Hence, we forward an argument: Mahathir’s qualms with Singapore are not just geopolitical or diplomatic in nature. They might also be personal, and are by products of the life he has lived.

Here’s why.

1. Singapore is the antithesis of Mahathir’s vision of Malaysia


Mahathir has always been a strong proponent of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Dominance). More specifically, it’s a quid pro quo agreement that grants non-malays citizenship, in return for recognising that the Malays should have special rights and privileges in their homeland. On paper, it is expressed in Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia, which states that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King of Malaysia) is responsible for “safeguarding the special position of the Malays.

Mahathir’s earliest political activities suggest that he has always subscribed to this ideology. After the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, he joined protests against the granting of citizenship to non-Malays under the short-lived Malayan Union. Later, while studying at the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore, Mahathir started contributing to The Straits Times under the pseudonym “C.H.E. Det”. In these early articles, he advocated for quotas for Malays at medical schools and restoring Malay as an official language, among other things.

During his first tenure as the Prime Minister of Malaysia, in the 1980s and 1990s, the practice of affirmative action for the Malays continued. Bumiputras (sons of the land) were still granted special quotas and privileges. To add to this, Malaysia was embarking on a rapid modernisation of its economy. Many multi-billion dollar projects – like the Petronas Twin Towers, the planned city of Putrajaya and the North-South Expressway – were dreamt up. Tenders for these massive infrastructure projects were awarded predominantly to Malay companies – who became closely tied to the government. It is said that today, these Malay government-linked companies control about one-third of the capitalisation of the stock exchange. Malay dominance has hence always been a guiding philosophy of Mahathir’s politics.

On the other hand, Singapore embarked on a completely different route since indepence, with Meritocracy becoming the order of the day. In its most literal sense, Meritocracy is a society governed by people selected according to merit. In Singapore’s case, this meant non-discriminatory policies and a level playing field for everyone, regardless of race or religion.

Mahathir personally thinks that the Singaporean system of meritocracy and racial equality gives way to the oppression of the Malays. In 1965, he denounces the PAP as:

“pro-Chinese, communist-oriented and positively anti-Malay… In industry the PAP policy is to encourage Malays to be labourers only, but Malays were not given facilities to invest as well… (There are) the insular, selfish and arrogant type (of Chinese), of which Mr Lee is a good example. (They) live in a purely Chinese environment where Malays exist only at syce level… They have never known Malay rule and could not bear the idea that the people that they have so long kept under their heels should now be in a position to rule them”

Nevertheless, the decades that followed were characterised by rapid economic growth and prosperity for Singapore. Its economy has since been ranked as the most open in the world, least corrupt, and has one of the highest per-capita GDP.

While it is true that Malays in Singapore lag behind other races in terms of household income and education indicators, the trend seems to be reversing. Malay workers for example, have experienced upward mobility in employment. In 1980, only 7.2% of Malays were holding administrative and managerial positions. By 2005, this increased to 21%. The educational profile of the Malay population has also substantially improved. 70% of the resident workforce in 2005 had attained secondary and higher qualifications, as compared to 19% in 1980. Overall, Malay households incomes in Singapore are around 2.6 times higher than in Malaysia.

Hence, there is a case to be made here, that the average Malay Singaporean is better off than his Malaysian counterpart and fundamentally, this is the problem. Singapore’s system is exemplary proof that Mahathir’s politics might not benefit his Malay population (and certainly the non-malays) as much as Singapore’s. This might also explain why he takes any opportunity given to undermine Singaporean interests – be it through the water prices or the border disputes.

2. An AbangAdik Relationship


Mahathir believes that Singapore always acts in self-interest and never for mutual benefit. In 2006, he said, “In my 22 years as prime minister, we tried very hard to be a good friend to Singapore. But they are a selfish lot, it was impossible to be a good friend with them”. Geopolitics aside, the belief that Singaporeans are arrogant, might have stemmed from the time he spent in Singapore. During a meeting with Lee Kuan Yew in 1978, Mahathir had recounted how, he had “directed a taxi driver to the home of a lady friend, but had been brought to the servants’ quarter of this house. He never forgot this insult”. Singapore Chinese, he said are arrogant and look down on the Malays – and this might be a view that he carried onto his political life. This is also precisely why Mahathir never lets Singapore get the upper hand. He harps on anything that he perceives to be unfair – like “manifestly ridiculous” water prices. At all costs, he wants to let Singapore know that it’s an equal, not superior in anyway.

Lee Kuan Yew takes this theory one step further in his book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. According to him, Malaysian politicians like Mahathir, wanted Singapore “to be obliging and accommodating” in an abang-adik (big brother-little brother) relationship. The theory goes: if Singapore and Malaysia are so similar, and if Malaysia’s method of governance is more morally just, why should the older, geographically and demographically larger country give way to the smaller one? Mahathir seems to echo this sentiment from time to time. During a state visit to Singapore in 2018, he stated that “Malaysia and Singapore are like twins, except maybe the elder twin is a little bit bigger than the younger one”.

Now what?

It’s undeniable that disputes between the two countries arise because of legitimate interests. However, Mahathir’s personal views on Singapore add an extra layer of understanding as to how the relationship has nosedived since his administration came to power. It also explains Singapore’s restraint in dealing with Malaysia. After all, Mahathir is an interim leader, who is said to step down in less than 2 years.

Singapore also knows that while Mahathir’s rhetoric might be unfriendly and hawkish, he is completely sane and rational. Nobody wants a devastating war — especially Mahathir, who remarked in a recent dialogue that “he doesn’t see war as a way to settle (issues)” and that “(The Malaysians) will continue to negotiate although there may be no results”.

Adik just has to humour abang for the time-being.

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  1. Very shallow article. There are other deeper reasons why Dr M hates Singapore.

    1. He’s a Racial Supremacist,

    2. Singaporeans ARE arrogant,

    3. PM Goh/LHL did not help Malaysia support their currency from attack in 1997 without strings attached, but guaranteed $1b in loans to Indonesia a short while later, no strings attached.

    4. He’s jealous Singapore has come so far.

    5. He always disliked LKY cos LKY had ambitions for the PMship of Malaysia (when we were merged).

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In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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