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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 08:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 08:16 | SYDNEY

Singapore: Railing against history

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1 June 2010 09:32

The time: 1990. The place: Singapore. The beverage: Tiger beer.

A senior hack – long since departed to the great sub-editor's room in the sky – is opining on the deep history of tensions, even enmity, between Singapore and Malaysia: 'The day they manage to fix up the railway issue, that will be a sign they've started to play like adults,' he said, before de-frothing a Tiger.

Sitting in Singapore last week, not far from the scene of that Tiger hunt 20 years ago, the railway measure of maturity returned to mind. I arrived in the city-state to find the locals still digesting a joint announcement by the Prime Ministers of Singapore and Malaysia that they are going to fix the railway dispute.

The wrangle is over some important bits of the Malaysian past that the Singapore polity has not been able to absorb, buy or seize. The physical prize is the 78 year-old Tanjong Pagar railway station, which sits right next to Singapore's business heart, as well as the railway land that runs north-south through the middle of Singapore and then on to Kuala Lumpur.

The Singapore land is worth a lot of cash. But the real value lies in what a true deal would say about the political, diplomatic and economic relationship.

Back in November, 1990, Malaysia and Singapore signed an agreement to resolve the deadlock over these important bits of land on the island still owned by Malaysia. It was that 1990 agreement that my Tiger-drinking mate was so sceptical about. And he was right.

Two decades later, Singapore and Malaysia are going to try again.

The problem has little to do with logic, everything to do with emotion. Singapore and Malaysia long ago went through a bitter divorce. As with so many divorces, a lot of things still need to be sorted out. The two sides start out like civilised adults, doing sensible negotiations. Then the emotions well up. Voices are raised. Tempers and temperatures jump. Instead of adults, two squabbling kids crash through the middle of the room.

All the emotional baggage means that the rail and land links between Singapore and Johor Baru are also emotional choke points. The continuing hassles of moving the couple of hundred metres between Singapore and Johor reveal the hesitations the two neighbours still hold about each other.

If the new railway deal holds, by 2018 Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system will reach across the causeway to Johor. It will be an achievement that is logical and logistically simple, yet will carry an amazing historical import.

Photo by Flickr user acroamatic, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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