On Aug 27, Malaysian newspaper Sin Chew Daily published a wide ranging three-part interview with the Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Iskandar.
The Sultan of Johor’s comments might be of interest for Singaporeans as Johor is, of course, Singapore’s closest neighbour, a source of labour, business opportunities, vital agricultural resources, as well as sharing a deep history with each other.
Singapore’s leaders, for their part, have themselves a long history of diplomatic interaction with the Johor Royal Family, with diplomatic visits regularly taking place in either direction.
Anwar needs more time
The main takeaway that Malaysian media has from the interviews is the strong backing that the Sultan gave for incumbent Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
“Anwar only came to realise the government’s financial difficulties after taking office”, the Sultan was quoted as saying, before telling Sin Chew that he believed Anwar needed more time.
Ibrahim also praised Anwar’s recent visit to China as being economically fruitful, contrasting it to an unnamed former Malaysian leader who the Sultan characterised as looking to “pick a fight”.
Ibrahim, who is widely tipped to be the next Yang di Pertuan Agong, has generally had warm relations with Anwar, something that he confirmed in the interview.
Saying that he had a “good” relationship with the PM, Ibrahim said that the pair frequently exchanged ideas, with Anwar seeking Ibrahim’s opinion, “advice and suggestions”, and at other times, providing Ibrahim with suggestions”.
This is significantly warmer than a year ago under the prime ministership of Ismail Sabri, where Ibrahim hit out at the UMNO-Perikatan Nasional federal government for neglecting the State of Johor, comparing the state to a “stepchild”.
He repeated the sentiment during the interview, saying that Johor felt like an adopted child despite being the “biggest contributor to the federal revenue”.
Worries and radicalism
Ibrahim also touched on Malaysia’s political situation, noting a growing trend of political radicalism.
The Sultan warned that some politicians would undermine the current system should they come to power, highlighting how during the recent state elections, Malaysia’s Chinese community had been often labelled as “pendatang” or foreigners.
He also warned that he was not the only party concerned by events, claiming that Singapore could be concerned and feel “uneasy” about such trends.
Singapore easier to deal with
Ibrahim also noted the close ties between Singapore and Johor, telling Sin Chew that it was easier to resolve issues with Singapore than Malaysia’s own federal government.
“This friendship goes back to the time of Lee Kuan Yew, and generations of Malaysians and Singaporeans have since been very good friends.”
“We often have tea and meals together. As I said, many things can be sorted out over a cup of tea.”
In contrast the relationship with Putrajaya was burdened by paperwork, and that every interaction required copious amounts of back-and-forth correspondence.
Pedra Branca issue, but on Johor’s lack of representation
He also brought up the issue of Pedra Branca, but framed it as an issue between the federal government and Johor, seemingly not mentioning Singapore at all.
Ibrahim’s complaint regarding Pedra Branca, was that the Malaysian federal government, then under Mahathir Mohamad, had failed to consult him before deciding to repeal its appeal of the Pedra Branca case in the International Court of Justice.
Anwar has, earlier this year, confirmed that Malaysia’s stance on Pedra Branca is acceptance of the ICJ’s ruling, albeit with a hint of regret.
Singapore, for its part, has repeatedly said it would robustly defend its sovereignty regarding the islands.
Ibrahim however, seemed to focus entirely on the lack of Johor’s representation in the decision making process.
RTS and HSR
Ibrahim also shared an optimistic view of Johor’s economic prospects in the upcoming years, mentioning the completion of the Johor Bahru – Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS).
He said that he expected property prices to rise in the areas around the RTS, and that it was imperative that Malaysia kept to its schedule for the RTS or face paying substantial compensation to Singapore.
He also said he planned to operate the first train between Johor and Singapore and back.
Ibrahim also had suggestions as to how to restart the Kuala Lumpur – Singapore high speed rail (HSR), such as offering a 30-year concession to the operator, couple with low interest loans.
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Top image Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar/Facebook