The Case for Singapore Rejoining Malaysia

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/31/2018 03:28:00 PM
Perhaps the only time Lee Kuan Yew cried in public was when Singapore left the Malayan Federation. Can things still work out?
Our longtime contact Andy Mukherjee of Bloomberg View recently penned a thought-provoking op-ed on why it makes sense for Singapore to rejoin Malaysia. Recall that Singapore was kicked out in 1965 of what was then known as the Malay Federation. Refusing to accept "affirmative action" laws aimed at ensuring ethnic Malays would gain preferences especially over the economically dominant ethnic Chinese, Lee Kuan Yew felt no choice but to leave. However, to the end of his life, he never gave up on the possibility of reintegrating with Malaysia.

Interestingly enough, recent events make this possibility less remote. Mainly, it makes economic sense. That said, we have to wait for  upset election victor, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, giving up the reins of power to his onetime protege, 70-year-old Anwar Ibrahim. Due to Mahathir's age, it may actually happen fairly soon. The hope is that Anwar would once and for all do away with the "New Economic Policy" of Malay-favoring affirmative action that offends Singaporeans with their mix of ethnic Chinese, Indians, and Malays:
But guess what. The latest Malaysian election, with its big upset, offers a reason to reconsider Lee’s 1996 and 2007 optimism [on reunification]. Maybe the analyst in him was right all along.

Once Anwar Ibrahim is out of prison and in the Malaysian prime minister’s seat, and once he starts taking apart the system of state-sponsored racism that has existed there since 1971, the difference between peninsular Malaysia and Singapore will be of living standards. In fact, with a shared heritage of British-inspired common law and parliamentary democracy, the difference will be even less than it is between Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
There's also the added attraction of gaining a relatively populous market in Malaysia for famously low-birth Singapore. Simply, Malaysia has more of the people Singapore needs. The example of the Pearl River Delta is also an attractive example to consider in a "one country, two systems" sense that works well enough economically:
Much better institutional arrangements are possible now, taking a leaf perhaps out of the Greater Bay Area that Beijing wants for Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province. If the agglomeration proves to be an economic success for Hong Kong, it would again put pressure on Singapore to find the one thing it doesn't have: a hinterland.

A hinterland, and babies. Almost 25 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million population is below 14 years of age. For aging Singapore, where the figure is 15 percent, the neighbor’s demographic dividend — if harvested well by Anwar — is a valuable resource. Defense savings, should the two countries agree to share resources, are an added attraction.
The catch remains a strong one that Mahathir, who was already in a position of leadership when the "New Economic Policy" was implemented, is habituated to the old ways. Indeed, the recently defeated Najib Razak was rather more Singapore-friendly than Mahathir.
Mahathir is too wedded to the status quo to move the needle on race relations. But if Anwar does manage to plant the seed of equal opportunity and rules-based competition while clearing out the weeds of rent-seeking and cronyism, a mutually beneficial economic union with some sharing of the defense burden is possible. None of this will occur tomorrow. The shock election result has increased the odds of a loose confederacy from zero to, say, 10 percent over the coming 30 years. Still, that’s a start.
Maybe Lee Kuan Yew will still find solace over this matter in the afterlife; I for one don't rule it out day.