Malaysia-Singapore Strategic Interdependence in Countering Common Threats

The 10th Singapore-Malaysia Retreat has produced positive outcomes and expectations for greater trust and partnership, but consistent and future driven strategic efforts must be amplified in reinforcing trust and cementing a common framework of strategic deterrence and joint security enhancement.

Distrust and mistrust on another’s long term security projections and threats with new alliance making capacity despite being intertwined in security vulnerabilities and under the same capacity FPDA.

Both remain vulnerable to escalating Sino-US rivalry and how one responses will affect the security dealings and defence postures on the other

Malaysia remains more important for Singapore’s long term survival in many fronts, and Singapore’s cost benefit calculations concluded that continuing to harp on sensitive disputes including Pulau Batu Puteh will only risk diminishing returns from a potentially more irritated Malaysia.

Singapore’s survival concerns vastly supersede the geopolitical returns from this issue, what more with Malaysia playing a central role to its survival calculations. Thus, it will want to capture the goodwill of Kuala Lumpur in reaping the security benefits.

Its long game in its strategic preparations is evident in its calculations in seeing China’s long term staying power both in economic and military might are not guaranteed, with internal setbacks and cracks that threaten to derail consistency and resilience.

Impact of Meticulous Affiliation Game

Singapore has thus played the long game in placing more of its bet on the West, wary of Beijing’s slowing economy and future unpredictability in building a regional or global order that is uncertain in its direction. Singapore calculates that it is best to remain with the established order, and further taking into account the strategic moves by Beijing in opening up more alternative trade routes that will sideline Singapore’s geostrategic importance.

If Singapore were to pledge overwhelming affiliation to the US, China might increase its dependence and leverage on Malaysia to further pile pressure on Singapore both militarily and economically. Singapore will face a three pronged threat in geographical security terms.

If Singapore were to succumb to Beijing and to affiliate with it under future potential conflicts in Taiwan or the South China Sea, Malaysia will be the next source of dependence for the US together with Manila in halting the momentum of Chinese influence seeking activities and projections of power base in the region.

Singapore received the positive implications from China’s slowdown and the crisis of confidence in Hong Kong’s economic and financial dominance, being at the receiving end of the exodus from both. It is ready to project a future region that is not fully China centric, and will try to preserve all the current foundational indicators of what makes Singapore globally respected as a stable and matured financial centre and economic player in the first place, which rest on a stable rules based order.

Being strategic and pragmatic, Singapore is assiduous enough to balance both and would avoid antagonising Beijing where it still looks to them as an important economic lifeline, but will depend on the West for survival and long term resilience.

Singapore knows that any real time conflict in the region or a potential full fallout from a Taiwanese invasion will eventually mean a mobilisation of US forces from the bases the US is currently accessing and using in Singapore. This will mean an eventual dragging of Singapore into the conflict either directly or indirectly, and will risk being seen by Beijing as a threat during wartime. Thus, whatever way it is in the future, in the eventuality of a full scale war or conflict, Singapore will be drawn into the opposing path with China regardless, and various strategies are drawn to prepare for this eventuality.

Economic, Food and Energy Security

Singapore will need Malaysia’s assurance in food and energy security, including water and raw resources. It is wary of this being used as a leverage and bargaining chip in times of conflict, and has drafted new plans to diversify its dependence, with China and Indonesia in the picture.

Existing claims and conflicts in the disputed zones will weigh in on future calculations on protection of the chips and cards that one has on the other. Malaysia is deepening energy and economic ties with Riyadh and Ankara, and both still play a significant economic role for the future of Singapore’s maritime economic transition.

Through BRI and other tie ups, new trade routes being pursued that include the Sunda Strait, railways,ports and land connections in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East and the prospect of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic all potentially would gradually supersede the importance and reliance on the Malacca Strait.

This would potentially diminish the economic and geostrategic advantage of Singapore, on top of other moves by neighbouring players including Indonesia with its Nusantara strategic card. All these are projected to further diminish Singapore’s regional voice, and is now scrambling to maintain its presence and role.

Economically, it will still cast its reliance on China in the near future but the economic transition and the need to break away from its current economic maturity trap would render Singapore to be still aligned to the value based and principle driven system of stability, predictability and consistency that is now sustained by the US and the West.

While Malaysia has the food and supply chain security card, alongside future affiliation and options to strengthen trade bypass option of the Strait of Malacca together with Thailand or China which will impact on Singapore, Singapore also has the option of increasing direct military overtures with either China or the West to mitigate for these risks and as a response to Malaysia.

The ECRL is part of the equation and trade of key minerals and supply chain resilience including rare earths in Kuantan and the existing Kuantan Industrial Park remain the next strategic development.

The East Coast development and geostrategic importance to China remains paramount, and so does to Singapore as it is cognisant of the new line of industrial growth along this coast linking from Pengerang to Kerteh. This provides a new bulwark of both economic and military support assets that will be of critical and strategic importance to the current and future implications of the South China Sea and Taiwan calculations in complementing existing assets and bases in the Philippines and Singapore. This also creates a new counter-deterrent effort in mitigating China’s new Ream base in Cambodia.

These include the possibilities of the new land bridge across Thailand or the revival of the Kra canal, or the revival of the possibility of the Trans Peninsula pipeline from Yan to Bachok.

The Integrated Gas Supply and Power Plant Development Project as well as Ship To Ship (STS) Transfer Hub in Pulau Bunting, Yan worth RM14bil will begin next year.It can also form a greater alliance with Indonesia and India to ensure that any fast and direct fallout in security and economic terms of this possible move to bypass the route will be mitigated or deterred

The new potential of the Lombok and Sunda Strait will be jointly developed by Jakarta and Singapore, and with the equation of Beijing in the fray in solving its Malacca Dilemma.

The strategic Andaman Sea and Nicobar Island Chains remain future based on power influence that can dictate the nexus of Malacca Dilemma and have a direct impact on both Malaysia and Singapore. The courting of deeper Indian ties remains vital, and the future remains for the best strategic move of a strengthened tripartite defence alliance of Delhi-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore in strengthening maritime domain awareness and maritime security in galvanising the best returns from existing and future security prospects that all three currently enjoy, all being Commonwealth members.

This will be a strategic precursor to the larger partnership of Malaysia-India-Indonesia-Singapore-Australia joint security and economic alliance or the MIISA Partnership which will strengthen existing regional defence partnership including the FPDA and in providing a greater deterrent bulwark against intimidations, coercions and violations of international law and in upholding the rules based order.

 

Reorienting New Trust Based Ties

 

Singapore remains the perfect connecting dot and vital chain link for the West’s containment capacity, linking it from Northern Australia with America’s growing military presence and base there all the way to the recently agreed return of US presence in the Philippines in Subic Bay and other bases.Singapore remains a sitting duck to external threat, and therefore sees AUKUS as a timely needed deterrence measure, and would be looking to further deepen Western security assurance and alliance.

The reality remains that any security threat or fallout in either Malaysia or Singapore will have a direct impact on one another, regardless of how much one tries to shield or to maneuver carefully. Singapore holds the key to attracting further defensive and security assurances from the West, and providing integrated capacity with sustaining arguments on shared interlinked vulnerabilities will inject further security assurances and lifelines. All these, are of course bound by Malaysia’s readiness and strategic future plan in how it will manage its defence and security approach in how it will face the probability of a full blown conflict in the South China Sea or in Taiwan, now increasingly being seen as a matter of when, not if.

Singapore and the West are also wary of Malaysia falling into the domino effect during a real time war, and will need Malaysia to be secure as a bankable first line of protection and in securing Singapore, reminiscent of WW2 setting in which the British concentrated its last stance capacity in Singapore in thwarting the onslaught of the Japanese that ran rampage in the peninsula in a short time.

Kuala Lumpur is also vital as Singapore’s second front in its social progression and satisfaction aspect, in providing its citizens the needed psychological opening in breaking from its almost robotic and systematic working and lifestyle environment through social and tourism activities, a growing facet that both realise is crucial as a fundamental factor in the ties.

It is high time both countries reorient their approaches to one another, and to look at each other as critically vital partners in facing shared common threats in the long term setting.

Whichever way it might go, both are too intertwined to be free from one another’s failed approach or miscalculations in its own security or economic pursuit and agenda. It is finally time to break free from past trap and policy dogma and to start to reduce and sideline any mistrust and to transcend present disputes in order to project a united front. Both must capitalise on each other’s unique strength, position and advantage, for both are facing a race against time to transform their economic direction and their national survival and interests, of which the interdependence of both countries remains indispensable.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Collins Chong Yew Keat
The author is a Foreign Affairs and Strategy Analyst based in Malaysia.
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