AMBASSADOR Bilahari Kausikan wrote in the Straits Times
this week that demerger was Singapore's “happy mistake”.
In fact, perhaps he suggests that it has been its happiest mistake so far.
I have no quarrel with the credit he gives to Singapore's domestic leadership.
But his comments on the Singapore-Malaysia relationship were less charitable.
Ambassador Kausikan considers the demerger to have been due to irreconcilable differences between Singaporean “multiracial meritocracy” and Malayan “Ketuanan Melayu”.
To begin with, Ambassador Kausikan oversimplifies the Malayan political ideology of the period.
The question of leadership in a fledging post-colonial nation riven by dramatic urban-rural inequities and simmering ethnic tension as in the 1960s Federation of Malaya bears no easy answer.
Yet, for Ambassador Kausikan, Malaya's answer is reduced to the arid monolithic concept of "Ketuanan Melayu".
Even if we were to limit our perspective to that of the towering personalities of the period, it would be a disservice to consider then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman a proponent of this.
One only needs to read the Malayan founding documents such as the Constitution and Proclamation of Independence to find no mention at all of such a concept; only instead consistent references to the principles of liberty, justice and democracy as the fundamental foundations of the nation.
In fact, the very term was only first articulated in August 1986, over 20 years after demerger.
The late Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad @ Dollah Kok Lanas controversially said to the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), “The Malays must be politically dominant in Malaysia as the Chinese are politically dominant in Singapore,” leading to the translation (or mis-translation) that is “Ketuanan Melayu”.
Ambassador Kausikan’s ignorance of the fluidity of ideology naturally engenders his ignorance of the possibility of reverse causality.
As much as value differences caused the demerger, demerger made value differences inevitable.
Once detached, it can be argued that young Singapore had no choice but to align itself, values and all, with the Anglo-American liberal order.
However, most worrying of all is not Ambassador Kausikan’s interpretation of the past, but his suggestion that such purported value differences continue to essentialise the Singapore-Malaysia relationship.
By ignoring real change in Malaysia and other regional neighbours since demerger, he denies to us the same agency that he claims for Singapore.
To him, Singapore is the product of its decisive leadership bending the arc of its history forever.
Yet for the rest of us, history is destiny.
He assumes our future is fixed by the values of our past, glossing over the struggle of individuals like Anwar Ibrahim daring to dream of a Malaysia founded upon the principles of liberty and justice.
The Ketuanan Rakyat vision was one example of our attempts to redefine our ideals on our own terms, amidst challenging politics and inexorable demographic shifts.
All I claim is that sustainable change must be managed carefully and well.
Realists like Ambassador Kausikan should realize that, given our nations ever-greater interconnectedness, violent societal upheaval in one of us is to the benefit of none of us.
The natural consequence of Ambassador Kausikan’s reductionist and deterministic view of Singapore's neighbours is that of missed opportunities for foreign policy.
A new rationalisation of regional interaction may well be necessary considering the cold war between a declining United States and an ascendant China.
Though it may seem provincial besides Classical Greek Thucydides, the Minang proverb: ‘bagai aur dengan tebing' is apt.
If Ambassador Kausikan is right, Malaysia and Singapore are as different in nature as bamboo (aur) and the riverbank (tebing).
Yet, this proverb reveals that differences can be a source of strength, not strife.
As the bamboo's fine root structure protects the bank from erosion, the bank grounds and nourishes the bamboo.
It is precisely this synergy that allows both to survive the drought and the stream.
This spirit of symbiosis is muafakat, loosely and unsatisfactorily translated to being in accord with one another despite our distinct identities and cultures.
Regional muafakat within and amongst all countries in the region results in economic success in each.
Small Singapore and slightly-less-small Malaysia will suffer what they must.
But at least, they will suffer less as partners, not mere neighbours.
Ambassador Kausikan’s worldview thus interprets the relationship between our nations to be a contest of scanty political philosophies, sweeping under in a fell swoop the richness of our shared connections and values.
It is a static worldview, unable to accommodate for the fact that the times have changed.
It would be a great and saddening pity if Ambassador Kausikan's reductionism truly were the “driving force” underlying Singapore's foreign policy towards Malaysia.
As we correct the course set by our previous government, I can only recommend the same spirit of introspection to the good ambassador.
It might just change his mind and temper his judgements - as it has a good many of ours since our nations parted ways.
* Senator Yusmadi Yusoff is a Senator, Chairman of the Senate Caucus (Kaukus Dewan Negara), Parliament of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew Senior Fellow in Public Service at LKY School of Public Policy, NUS.
**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.