This article was published on November 17, 2018.

By Viswa Sadasivan

The National University of Singapore (NUS) must be congratulated for the attention to detail it paid in organising the ceremony where Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad received an Honorary Doctor of Laws while his wife was given the distinguished alumni service award (Mahathir conferred honorary doctorate; Nov 14).

It had pomp and, more importantly, warmth in honouring its distinguished alumni.

The welcome speech by the NUS president and the citation were formal yet personal.

Care was taken to ensure the audience comprised not only dignitaries but also individuals who had a relationship with Tun Dr Mahathir.

Just before the ceremony, the university arranged a gathering for the Malaysian PM to meet his old friends from medical college.

Clearly, this meant very much to him and his wife.

His appreciation was palpable in his acceptance speech. He said he will value this award for the rest of his life.

Events like these help to reframe relationships and make them less sharp.

Differences are allowed to thaw.

They remind leaders of the splendour of the larger canvas against which imperfections are dotted.

They can make leaders more open to conciliation.

We tend to forget that political leaders are human. We need to recognise the in-built limitation of government-to-government relations.

Governed by the need to further specific national interests, they have to be task-driven. This is why such negotiations tend to be binary.

Softening ties is important, but hard to achieve.

We need to be more committed to building and deepening alternative relationship tracks, where the modus operandi is discourse, not negotiation.

The tracks can be based on business, alumni, sports, non-governmental organisations or even hobby-based relationships.

Singapore and our immediate neighbours' historical and kinship ties are deep, and relationships are multifaceted with revolving doors between them.

These relationships can help soften the ground and nudge political leaders away from hardline positions, towards shared interests.

Image Source | NUS News