The Malaysian government will soon send three ministers to Singapore for the re-negotiation of the High Speed Rail project. The latest Malaysian status is the project is to be delayed rather than cancelled. Anyway, a negotiation is needed and interestingly, Singapore will face a team of ‘reformasi’ ministers who are different from the usual UNMO friendly ministers.
In addition, the negotiation is to be conducted in a transparent, open and perhaps in equal terms. Both Malaysia (under Najib) and Singapore governments need big projects to generate economic growth, regardless fair wealth distribution. In particular, the former Malaysian prime minister like to use big project for election purpose and maybe also for personal gain.
A close and less transparent contract, likes the HSR, will certainly have less than perfect consideration, assessment and evaluation. As shown in the recent election result in Malaysia, voters did not trust Najib, especially in urban areas and perhaps, hated him for all his wrong doings. If HSR is a value for money project and helps to create jobs, Malaysian voters will think twice before saying no to Najib, especially in states that HSR runs.
A NEGOTIATION LED BY FUTURE LEADERS
Despite different ideological and political experience, one common thing between Malaysian and Singapore ministers is they are future leaders of both countries, for example, Lim Guan Eng, Azmin, Anthony Loke and our Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Seng etc.
We will then see how their performance is. This is a real test for both sides as we all know Najib Administration maintained a good working relationship with Singapore government. But few know new Malaysian ministers and a new working relationship needs times to build up.
Here are two examples showing how the new Malaysian ministers work:
I’m Malaysian, don’t see myself as Chinese
Loke urges MOT staff to serve, not line up to greet ministers
These ministers do not have our PA-style grassroots support but people support. Their political struggles are very different from our scholars-turned political leaders. Lim and Azmin have been jailed and in the eyes of 70% Singaporeans, they are not perfect.
IS PAY AN ISSUE?
The 3 Malaysian ministers are all first time ministers and draw low salary based on Singapore standard. With the recent 10% cut in pay, these Malaysian ministers are really poorly compensated.
Will pay and low compensation affect their performance during negotiation?
Let’s recall the story of dignity and pay:
He (Lim Wee Kiak) had been quoted by the Chinese paper last week as saying, "If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discuss policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister's ideas and proposals. Hence, a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity."
In his Facebook note, the MP said, "I withdraw those remarks and apologise for making them. Dignity cannot be and must not be measured purely in monetary terms."
It is interesting to see how the low pay Malaysian ministers discuss and negotiate with our highly paid ministers and whether they have the dignity to protect the interest of Malaysia.
We will then see whether compensation is the key motivation for political appointments and ministers.
The open and transparent HSR negotiation will also help Singaporeans to understand the meaning of openness, transparency and citizens-led democracy.
INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE AND REFORM
The HSR negotiation is taking place under institutional change and reform in Malaysia. We have seen the resignation or removal of top judges, Attorney-general, central bank governor, MOF secretary-general, anti-corruption chairman, election commission chairman, registry of societies chairwoman, plus the heads of government-linked companies.
In Singapore, it is hard for us to imagine so many key persons in the public administration and GLCs been removed and replaced. 70% of Singaporeans will think this will be the end of the country as the change of government will lead to no capable men and women running the country.
Is this true?
We will know the answer when the 3 Malaysian ministers visit Singapore.