A bit of good news for a change

There are plenty of depressing stories in this week’s news-lethal ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan, gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the usual mishigas in the Middle East, etc . — so I thought today I’d highlight a small bit of good news.  A few weeks ago, Singapore and Malaysia reached an important agreement resolving ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

There are plenty of depressing stories in this week's news-lethal ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan, gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the usual mishigas in the Middle East, etc . -- so I thought today I'd highlight a small bit of good news. 

A few weeks ago, Singapore and Malaysia reached an important agreement resolving a longstanding dispute over Malayan Railway (KTM) land in Singapore.  The dispute dates back to Singapore's unilateral declaration of independence from the Malay Confederation in 1965, and involved the fate of a railway terminal and other properties owned by KTM.  As Mushahid Ali and Yang Razali Kassim describe in this brief commentary, KTM has agreed to move its terminal from Tanjong Pagar (a prime real estate location in central Singapore) to a spot near the strait that separates the two countries, just across from the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru.  A joint holding company (60 percent Malay ownership, 40 percent Singapore) will then develop the abandoned KTM properties (and presumably make a bundle).

There are plenty of depressing stories in this week’s news-lethal ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan, gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the usual mishigas in the Middle East, etc . — so I thought today I’d highlight a small bit of good news. 

A few weeks ago, Singapore and Malaysia reached an important agreement resolving a longstanding dispute over Malayan Railway (KTM) land in Singapore.  The dispute dates back to Singapore’s unilateral declaration of independence from the Malay Confederation in 1965, and involved the fate of a railway terminal and other properties owned by KTM.  As Mushahid Ali and Yang Razali Kassim describe in this brief commentary, KTM has agreed to move its terminal from Tanjong Pagar (a prime real estate location in central Singapore) to a spot near the strait that separates the two countries, just across from the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru.  A joint holding company (60 percent Malay ownership, 40 percent Singapore) will then develop the abandoned KTM properties (and presumably make a bundle).

This agreement seems like a small matter, but given the sometimes troubled history of the two countries, it is a significant step forward in their relationship.  According to Ali and Kassim, the agreement also "opened up the possibility of a resolution of other outstanding issues," such as price of water supplied to Singapore by Malaysia.

There are three broader lessons we might draw from this relatively obscure but positive development.   The first lesson is that the United States is not always the "indispensable nation" and not every diplomatic issue requires the United States to get involved.  As near as I can tell, the United States played no direct role in helping resolve this issue.  Instead, Singapore and Malaysia figured out for themselves that remaining at loggerheads wasn’t doing anyone any good, and they’ve worked out a deal that will leave both better off.   This sort of thing happens all the time in world politics, but we Americans tend not to hear about positive developments like this one unless some U.S. politician or diplomat is trying to claim the credit.

The second lesson is that generational change matters.  Singapore’s decision to withdraw from the Malay Confederation in the mid-1960s left a legacy of bitterness, and made compromise and cooperation difficult even after more-or-less cordial relations had been established between the two countries.  The obstacles that the first generation of Malay and Singaporean leaders faced in resolving this sort of dispute now appear to be of much less concern to leaders on both sides.  Which raises the interesting possibility that conflicts that seem intractable at present could become much easier to resolve once elites who have an interest in confrontation are gradually replaced by successors who simply don’t care as much about scoring points against a former adversary.   (It doesn’t always work this way, of course; sometimes conflicts get worse over time and successor generations become more intransigent and extreme than their predecessors were.)

The third lesson has to do with the central role of security.  Cooperation and compromise between Malaysia and Singapore were difficult during the first few decades after independence, because Singapore’s long-term future was still uncertain and its relationship with Malaysia was particularly fraught.  Today, by contrast, its independence is well-established and relations with its neighbors (and the United States) are positive. 

Malaysia has done very well in recent years as well, despite some degree of internal political turmoil.  With both sides feeling relatively secure, compromise on issues like the KTM rail properties no longer carried large political consequences and agreement became much easier to reach.  The lesson, if it weren’t obvious, is that mutual security is the foundation of far-reaching international cooperation.   Feel free to bear that in mind whenever you think about resolving other seemingly intractable international conflicts.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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