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Malaysia’s Anwar tightens Singapore ties in ASEAN travel rush

SINGAPORE — Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Monday met Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong in his first official visit to the city-state as leader, sealing a trio of deals and cementing relations with a key neighbor.

After taking office last November, following a tumultuous election, Anwar has kicked off 2023 with a string of trips to fellow members of the Associations of Southeast Asian Nations. In the span of a month he has also visited Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Jakarta and gone to Brunei to see Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

So far, Anwar’s travels have largely focused on economic cooperation and much less on pressing regional security issues, from the ongoing crisis in military-ruled Myanmar to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

In Singapore, too, Anwar and Lee witnessed the signing of three agreements for cooperation in the digital and green sectors, as well as personal data protection. Malaysia and Singapore are each other’s second-largest trading partners.

The green economy agreement marks the first Malaysia has signed with any country. It aims to step up work toward decarbonizing industry in both nations, targeting fields such as next-generation mobility, low-carbon solutions and carbon credits.

Following the signing of the agreements on Monday, Anwar joined Lee for an official lunch at the Istana, Singapore’s presidential residence. During the event, the Malaysian leader named new technologies and food security as some of the priorities the neighbors could focus on.

“While we have achieved much together in the last decades, I do believe that there remains a huge potential to elevate our relations to greater heights for the benefit of our peoples,” Anwar said. He also said that his discussions with Lee “were meaningful, not normal diplomatic cliches.”

During his recent trip to Jakarta, Anwar — who also serves as Malaysia’s finance minister — had similarly focused on economic collaboration. Businesses from Indonesia and Malaysia agreed on potential partnerships in areas like green energy and shipping. Ten Malaysian companies showed interest in participating in the development of Nusantara, Indonesia’s envisioned new capital on the island of Borneo.

After meeting with Anwar, Widodo did say that both leaders agreed that ASEAN “must continue to play a central role in making the Indo-Pacific region peaceful, prosperous and stable.” On Myanmar, the Indonesian president said he and Anwar agreed to urge the military regime to implement ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus, which calls for an immediate end to violence as well as dialogue between the military and opposition movement. But Anwar did not comment on the matter during the joint press conference, instead emphasized bolstering ties with Indonesia.

Anwar may be treading carefully abroad while, back home, his fledgling coalition government faces risks of internal divisions.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a coalition member, recently expelled and suspended a number of politicians including former ministers over disciplinary breaches, such as helping opposition parties.

Malaysia’s election in November ended in a hung parliament, with none of the competing blocs managing to win a simple majority. In building a coalition that could sustain a parliamentary majority, Anwar named UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as a deputy, even though he is on trial for corruption and abuse of power — allegations he denies.

Relying on several parties with different policies and support bases, Anwar appears to be prioritizing domestic stability and may be reluctant to stick his neck out on contentious foreign issues that could further divide the government. His predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, for instance, had suspended plans to build a high-speed railway connecting Malaysia and Singapore, while vowing to renegotiate a water agreement between the countries.

Mahathir’s government, formed in 2018, collapsed in less than two years due to an internal political coup.

Anwar acknowledged on Monday that the neighbors face “more contentious outstanding issues.”

“I’m glad to say that both of us feel that bilateral relations must be enhanced,” Anwar said of Lee. “No issues should be left unresolved, we should try and do our utmost to enhance this [relationship] and work together for the benefit of both countries.”

Lee agreed that the discussion was “fruitful,” stressing that “the destinies of Singapore and Malaysia are intertwined.”

Source : Asia Nikkei