Malaysia, Singapore and the United States: Harmony or Hegemony?

May 13, 2015

The death of Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, on 23 March 2015 marked the end of an era in Southeast Asia and elicited worldwide reflection on his enormous legacy. Lee’s achievement—building up Singapore from a backwater British colony to an economic powerhouse—ranks among the most impressive in modern statecraft. Just as important, perhaps, was the relationship he helped forge between Malaysia and Singapore. This relationship, cultivated by generations of leaders from both nations, has overcome major historical disagreements and ethnic and religious distrust to foster cooperation and economic growth. As a result, this pragmatic relationship serves as a model of collaboration between nations who share common interests but do not always share common values. It remains a pillar of stability in the region and is of great strategic importance to the world, especially to the United States.

The United States’ interests in Malaysia and Singapore consist of three major factors. First, the waterways around Malaysia and Singapore are among the most important shipping lanes in the world and the United States has about $91 billion in total two-way trade with both countries.1 Second, Malaysia and Singapore both have significant Muslim populations, and recruiting by Islamic terrorist groups has been a growing concern. However, Malaysia is a world leader in promoting a moderate version of Islam and provides the United States opportunities to collaborate with Muslim communities against religious extremism. Finally, Singapore plays a key role in balancing the interests between the United States and China in the Pacific region.

The administration’s rebalance to the Indo–Asia–Pacific region underscores the importance of U.S. relationships with Malaysia and Singapore; however, the distrust between the two nations and the difference in their capabilities require the United States to forge separate, bilateral relationships. The U.S. Army continues to strengthen its relationships with Malaysia and Singapore through exercises and joint operations. As noted in the Army Operating Concept (AOC), the Army’s presence in the region helps develop partner capability, assure allies of the U.S. commitment to their security and deter adversaries.2 The Army will continue to enhance U.S. relationships with Malaysia and Singapore and contribute to regional security and stability in pursuit of mutual interests.