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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

The sayings of Lee Kuan Yew cause a ruckus across the causeway

By Susan Berfield


What they said

It’s not difficult to brush off criticism from those at a distance. But when those nearby find fault, it is harder to dismiss the disparagement as ignorant or ill-informed. Few neighbors seem to be as sensitive to such proximate slights as Singapore and Malaysia. Theirs can be a prickly relationship, as a recent incident shows. The sting this time came from Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He described the Malaysian state of Johor, linked to Singapore by a causeway, as “notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings.” Said Malaysia’s inspector-general of police, Rahim Nor: “He is a serious man and when he makes a statement we must take it seriously.” The anger of Malaysians was swift and unrelenting. Lee’s apology was prompt and, he said, “unreserved.” The irritation, though, may well linger.

Lee, 73, hasn’t been to Johor recently, but used to cross over frequently. As his old friend Samad Ismail recalls: “Back in the 1950s, we used to go on Saturday nights in his Studebaker to a place near the Johor railway station for satay and noodles. He loved that.” Today Singaporeans head to state capital Johor Baru to shop more cheaply and to relax more easily than at home. It may be untidy, confusing and a tad seedy, and it is on the border, but it is no frontier town. Clubs are now supposed to close by 1 a.m. A $2.4-billion waterfront project and light rapid transit system are planned for JB, and a $360-million theme park is under construction about 45 km from the town.

True, a recent shootout near JB in which a policeman was killed made headlines. But Johor does not lead Malaysia in murders, robberies or carjackings. In 1995 the murder rate in Johor was 1.75 for every 100,000 citizens. In Singapore that same year, the rate was 1.71. Singaporeans don’t seem worried about crime in Johor. A week-long school holiday began just days after Lee’s comments were published; more than 10,000 cars entered Johor over the causeway that Saturday, say Malaysian officials.

Lee made the Johor remarks in a Jan. 27 affidavit submitted as part of proceedings against opposition politician Tang Liang Hong for a “Mareva” injunction to freeze his assets. Tang was defeated in the January general election, and sued by Lee (and later by others in the ruling People’s Action Party) for defamation after he called their charges that he was a “Chinese chauvinist” lies. Tang eventually wound up in Johor Baru, saying he had received death threats. That’s what Lee was referring to when he said what he said, adding “it does not make sense for a person who claims to be fearful for his life to go to a place like Johor.”

The affidavit was first heard only in chambers, but when the judge ordered open court hearings, it became public. Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi called the Johor remarks “callous.” Later, he said his government accepted Lee’s apology but added, “This episode has deeply hurt Malaysians, and the restoration of the old level of relationship will take time.” The youth wing of dominant party UMNO staged a peaceful protest in Johor Baru. Newspapers received stacks of letters from outraged readers. Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad said: “To have friendly relations with Singapore requires considerable effort as sometimes things are said and done which make it difficult to be friendly.”

Lee’s words landed in sensitive areas. Singapore depends on Johor for water; the city-state is officially “water deficient” and Lee’s last formal visit to Malaysia was in November 1990 to sign a new water and gas agreement. Much of Singapore’s food comes from Malaysia. The country is Singapore’s second- largest trading partner. The Johor-Singapore-Batam growth triangle is important to all three. Both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur attach great importance to their relationship. One indicator of how important: the speed as well as manner of Lee’s apology -- he has asked the court to delete the statements from the record. “I was surprised he came out with this,” says Musa Hitam, a Johorean and former Malaysian deputy PM. “I cannot see any explanation. I don’t think there is a political agenda behind this.”

Maybe. It is no secret Lee worries the city-state’s competitive edge is becoming dull. His comments could have been a provocative warning to Singaporeans: we must keep up our standards or else we might become like Johor. This is nothing new. A few years ago Lee detailed Malaysian projects that he thought could undermine Singapore’s prospects: Kuala Lumpur’s new international airport, an upgraded Port Klang and the offshore financial center of Labuan. Last year he cautioned Singapore that it might have to reunite with Malaysia if its economy faltered. “Lee is a strategist,” says Razak Baginda, director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. “His statements reflect what he intends to say. It is all part and parcel of his agenda to get Singapore going -- and to keep it going.”

At their country’s expense, say some Malaysians. They wonder if the remarks might scare potential investors away from their country’s planned Multimedia Super Corridor. Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong says that Malaysia’s high-tech scheme and Singapore’s own information technology network could “reinforce one another.” He says it’s not a “zero-sum” game, but not everyone calculates things that way. Malaysia and Singapore look likely to keep score for a while longer.

-- With reporting by Roger Mitton / Kuala Lumpur and Santha Oorjitham / Singapore

Neighborhood Watch

On the whole, Malaysia and Singapore enjoy good relations, but over the years some words and incidents have caused uneasiness:

1965 Singapore splits from the Malaysian federation after Lee Kuan Yew disagrees with, among other things, Kuala Lumpur’s growing pro-Malay policies.

SINCE 1965 The Malayan Railway terminus in Singapore’s central business district is owned by Malaysia. Singapore wants KL to relocate the station so they can jointly re-develop the land.

NOV. 1992 KL says it will close its Woodlands naval base in Singapore by the end of 1997 -- after the rent was nearly tripled.

OCT. 1994 A dispute over the sovereignty of an island (called Pedra Branca by Singapore, Pulau Batu Putih by KL) administered by Singapore since 1850 is brought to the International Court of Justice, which has yet to make a ruling.

JUNE 1996 Lee says Singapore could be obliged to reunite with Malaysia if the city-state loses its economic edge, and indicates his antipathy to a perceived lack of meritocracy in Malaysia.

MAR. 1997 Malaysians condemn Lee for describing Johor state as “notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings.”

Return to main story

What They Said

Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew:

"I have already apologized unreservedly and repeat my unreserved apology. I have asked my counsel to have the offending words removed from the record."

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad:

"To have friendly relations with Singapore requires considerable effort as sometimes things are said and done which make it difficult to be friendly."

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