Singapore celebrated its 50th anniversary a few days ago. Even those who have misgivings about the city-state cannot deny the fact that this tiny nation has achieved an economic miracle far out of proportion to its size.
This then begs the question: if Singapore were bigger in size, would it assume a more important role in international affairs?
In fact it is not pure fantasy. A few months ago the state of Johor, the autonomous province lying on the southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula, had a war of words with the Malaysian federal government, threatening that it was going to secede from Malaysia.
The cause of this dispute was that the Secretary for Culture and Tourism in Kuala Lumpur, Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, asked the royal family of Johor to brief him on the financial status of the state-run 1MDB, and the Johor royal family was deeply offended by this request.
Later, the second prince of Johor uploaded a picture of the Malaysia Agreement concluded in 1963 to the internet, stating that under the agreement the state of Johor can break away from Malaysia if its autonomy is threatened by the federal government.
He went on to say that if Johor seceded from Malaysia, it would either become an independent nation or merge with Singapore, thereby creating a Greater Singapore.
Of course the chance of that happening is basically zero, and Johor was probably only bluffing, despite the fact that the 13 individual states that form Malaysia, including Johor, do enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy. For example, the federal government in Kuala Lumpur cannot casually interfere in the distribution of land and water sources in individual states.
Economically, Johor is among the wealthiest states in Malaysia, and has collaborated with Singapore on building the Iskandar Development Region, a special economic region that bears some resemblance to the Greater Pearl River Delta region and Hong Kong, in order to form an economic cooperative circle through which Johor and Singapore can complement each other with their own unique advantages.
The Secretary of State Affairs of Johor, Mohamed Khaled Nordin, has said Johor is going to develop its own oil, natural gas, tourism, logistics and education industries, with a view to becoming the “power generator of Malaysian economy”.
In recent years an increasing number of Chinese and Singaporean real-estate developers have entered the Iskandar region, causing local property prices to soar. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir has warned that Iskandar might soon become a “foreigner’s territory” if the influx of foreign capital continues.
However, his concern was dismissed by Ibrahim Ismail, the Sultan of Johor, who is well-known for his pro-Singapore stance. In March he moved into his new office right on the other side of the strait that separates Johor and Singapore, and suggested the two regions merge further, looking forward to seeing more and more Singaporeans move to Johor, just like what is happening between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
He also called for the restoration of English as the medium of instruction in Malaysian schools to boost the country’s competitiveness, indicating that he would like his sultanate to look like Singapore most among all the Malaysian states.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 11.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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