As Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday this year, TODAY is running a monthly series of interviews with the ambassadors of several countries that play a key role in Singapore’s foreign relations. This month, reporter Celene Tan ([email protected]) speaks with Malaysian High Commissioner Husni Zai Yaacob, who has served in Singapore since August 2013. Mr Husni tells us about Malaysia and Singapore’s substantive political, economic and social ties; ongoing projects and cooperation between the two neighbours; and domestic and regional issues on religion, terrorism and the South China Sea. The interview has been edited for space considerations.
In a nutshell, what is your take on Malaysian-Singapore relations? What areas can both countries cooperate on, going forward?
I can describe the relationship as special and substantive.
Special because we have a lot of history; we have shared history for a long, long time, before our independence. Special because this year we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. Special because of all the people-to-people links. We have relatives in both countries. We have similar culture, shared religion, shared culture. There are many features special about our relationship.
Substantive in terms of our economic cooperation. In terms of trade, for instance, Singapore is Malaysia’s second-biggest trading partner. Similarly, Malaysia is Singapore’s second-biggest trading partner for a long time. In terms of investments, last year, Singapore was the second-biggest foreign investor in Malaysia. In terms of tourism, it is very clear, more than 50 per cent of foreign tourists visiting Malaysia are from Singapore. So, (it is a) very substantive relationship between our two countries.
We have an excellent relationship on the political level. Our two prime ministers have a very good rapport; they enjoy a very good relationship. In fact, they have been meeting regularly. Your PM Lee was in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi only a few days ago (for the Association of South-east Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Summit). Our PM was here to pay respects during the funeral of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Our King, the Agong, was also here to attend the state funeral service recently.
We also have close cooperation at the regional level, for instance, in ASEAN, and also at the international level. We are also cooperating in non-traditional areas such as security and defence. The relationship will be further enhanced in the future, because I believe it is a win-win situation for both countries.
The Prime Ministers of both Singapore and Malaysia will meet next week for a retreat. What is on the agenda and what are some concrete outcomes that we can expect?
The two PMs will be meeting at the sixth leaders’ retreat. They met last year in Kuala Lumpur. So when they meet again, next weekend, they will review the progress of what they have discussed last year and will be updated on the developments.
I think high on the agenda will be on the improved connectivity (between) the countries. There are several projects, namely the High-Speed Rail and the Rapid Transit System — the RTS. I think these two projects are very important to both countries and the two leaders are very committed to seeing the implementation of these two projects as soon as possible.
Besides the two big projects, or what we call the game-changers, they will also be discussing the measures to ease congestion at the two checkpoints. Through the immigration workshop, both sides have agreed to take a number of measures to reduce the congestion. This will be announced during the retreat. One option to ease congestion (that) Malaysia is also looking at (is) having a new bridge connecting the two countries.
The retreat also will discuss ways on how to further strengthen our economic cooperation. As I mentioned just now, we have a very substantive relationship, but we want to further enhance our economic cooperation. So through this joint ministerial committee on Iskandar, there are various sub-committees to discuss how we could further strengthen … synergistic investment cooperation between Malaysia and Singapore.
As I mentioned just now, security cooperation will also feature in the leaders’ retreat, especially the threat of Islamic State to the region. And I think the two leaders will spend some time discussing this very important issue.
We expect also some Memorandums of Understanding to be signed, most likely one on the cooperation in developing urban search-and-rescue capabilities. This MOU aims to further strengthen our cooperation in terms of training, techniques and sharing of information pertaining to search and rescue, and also disaster management.
The other issue is also to discuss ways to deepen our social and cultural ties. As I’ve said, we have very strong cultural and social ties, but we want to strengthen it further. So there are various exchanges of artwork, exchanges of animals for instance, between the two zoos, Zoo Negara and Singapore Zoo.
Besides bilateral issues, the two are also expected to discuss other regional matters such as ASEAN, issues of interest such as the Middle East and other issues of common concern.