DECEMBER 6 — Sterile. This was the most common word I encountered over a three-day trip to the capital of Malaysia. I heard it the first evening I arrived and found myself standing in the corner of the elevator of the very swanky, very popular Troika Sky Dining building in the heart of the city.
Two middle-aged men stepped in after I did. Both in mid-conversation and as the doors closed, I overheard the pronouncement: “It is very dull but least it is pretty.”
“That’s Singapore for you,” the older of the two commiserated.
And then their conversation wandered off but it left me wondering if this was how all our neighbours felt? I have previously shared how so many of my fellow countrymen have disproportionate fears of the peninsula, writing it off as crime-filled and dangerous which is an inaccurate generalisation and glazes over an infinity of positives.
But the view of Singapore as nothing more than sterile, I think is equally inaccurate.
So over the course of this visit to KL, I set out to uncover the opinion of more Malaysians towards a nation that was once part of theirs.
The next afternoon over ice cream with two young, strong Malaysian women I broached the topic of my little city-state and immediately — almost instinctively — they both retorted: it’s too sterile.
One had been there several times as a child but felt zero desire to return as an adult summing up her feelings towards Singapore as indifferent. The other was precise in her opinion: boring.
I tried to convince them that this wasn’t really the case anymore — and maybe that it had never been. That under the surface and, these days, even on the surface there’s a lot going on in the Little Red Dot.
But their attachment to their generalisation was unflappable and I began to see a second trend in Malaysian attitudes to Singapore: indifference and distance.
“Nothing lah, never been there,” said the young Uber driver who would later drive me to the airport when I asked him what he thought of Singapore.
This was quite a common sentiment: Singapore, we don’t t really think about it. Its somewhere in the south.
Which is interesting because in Singapore it’s impossible to be indifferent to Malaysia. We complain about the three Cs: Causeway, corruption and crime, we laud the quality of the nasi lemak, otak otak and the cheapness of the shopping.
But we are never indifferent. However, up in KL things are different. KL has its own vast hinterland so there’s little reason for them to think of Singapore. It’s also got plenty of cheap shopping, beaches, hills and second cities so if you really want the abroad, you might try Australia or Thailand. Basically you don’t go across the Causeway unless you have some very particular business there.
Which is why — despite us sharing so much, Malaysians often resort to simple clichés; they honestly don’t know too much about us.
It’s a shame really, Singapore is much more than a sterile rock with money.
We have a lot in common with Malaysia and there’s also a world of difference — and yet the deep partnership that should have developed five decades after the awkwardness of our separation hasn’t quite materialized.
Perhaps the proposed high speed rail links and third road links will change that but we’re pretty well connected already and still something hasn’t clicked.
On my last afternoon in KL, I was talking to a childhood friend — a Malaysian — who had attended primary and secondary school with me in Singapore before returning to his hometown of Kluang after his “O” levels and he had an enlightening take.
“Singapore is quite a paradise if you have the money, otherwise it is a lot less forgiving than Malaysia. I think of it as an ideal place to work but not to live.”
And then, like I often do when I need an answer, I spoke to my mum and she summed it up: The same cut of mutton that will cost you over S$20 you can get a better cut from JB for about RM$20. Cheaper and better!
And there you have it.
We both see the other as a means to an end. Malaysians — if they think about it at all — think you can make money in Singapore and Singaporeans think they can spend their money in Malaysia.
But really I think we can be more to each other than that; why don’t more of you KLites hop on a flight, train or bus and take a look? You might be surprised by what you see.