Singapore’s top diplomat today paid tribute to Dr Mahathir Mohamad, saying he was a “unique” leader who deserved to be respected despite his frank and “sometimes provocative” views that the city-state might not be comfortable with.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Singapore foreign minister, said he enjoyed close personal ties with the Malaysian prime minister and his wife Dr Siti Hasmah Ali, adding that the May 9 change of government was the least likely reason to affect the strong historical bonds between the two countries.
“Dr Mahathir is unique. He speaks his mind, sometimes frankly and I think more provocatively than perhaps necessary or intended,” Vivian said during a dialogue with a group of senior Malaysian journalists at his office here.
“At the age of 93, I think he is perfectly entitled to say and act as he has always done in the 93 years of his life.
“You cannot expect to change someone. I have always held him in high regard,” he said.
Vivian also disagreed with a suggestion that the return of the Mahathir factor could pose more challenges to Singapore in terms of reaping benefits from its ties with Malaysia.
“I don’t date everything to May 9,” he said, when prodded on whether ties had become rougher in the aftermath of the 14th general election which ended decades of Barisan Nasional rule.
“I know May 9 is a very important date for Malaysia, and it’s relevant to us. But it is not the main challenge that we face.”
He said Mahathir was also not a novelty for Singapore, adding that the republic’s past Cabinet members including him had been dealing with him for more than two decades during his first premiership.
“We know him, we have worked with him before, to get things done,” he said, adding that there had been major achievements that took place during Mahathir’s 22 years in power between 1981 and 2003.
He said they included the Tuas second link connecting Johor and Singapore.
“Even for water, a lot of people have forgotten there was a 1990 agreement that was signed. And the physical manifestation, if you go to Johor and look at the Linggiu Reservoir, all that was done on his watch,” said Vivian, referring to the 1990 agreement between Singapore and Johor to construct the Linggiu Dam to increase the yield of the Johor River.
“These were done under his watch. There is a history that we can get things done if we want to,” said Vivian.
He said it was natural for both Singapore and Malaysia, with a significant people-to-people engagement, to have differences.
“You cannot expect there will never be differences. It’s how we resolve the differences.
“The relationship between the two countries goes beyond individuals.”