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May 4, 2003

Sound relations with Malaysia vital, says Hsien Loong

SINGAPORE May 3 - Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says one of the lessons learnt from its experiences with Malaysia underscores the complexity and importance of maintaining good relations with its neighbour, despite awkward issues that crop up from time to time.
In his keynote address at the "Network Conference: Learning and Living the Singapore Story" on Saturday, Lee said its relationship with Malaysia was one of its most important and complex foreign relations.
In recent years, he said relations had gone through "sharp ups and downs" due to various issues, such as water, land reclamation, the Points-Of-Agreement, and Pedra Branca (Pulau Batu Puteh).
Singapore, he said, tried hard and in good faith to resolve the water issue with Malaysia, "but many complications arose and ultimately the effort was in vain."
"The ins and outs of this saga have been fully explained by the Foreign Minister in Parliament, and have now been set out in a book which offers rich material for the NE (National Education)," he said.
But with Newater as a new source of water for Singapore, the republic would be able to continue to meet its water requirements when the 1961 Water Agreement with Malaysia lapsed, said Lee.
"With further breakthroughs in water technology and developments in our local catchment areas, we can, if necessary be self-sufficient after 2061 when the 1962 Water Agreement expires," he said.
"Water is a manifestation, but not the root cause of Malaysia's unhappiness with Singapore. The key issue is not what we do, (it) is what we are," he said.
Another important lesson was that a fundamental basis for sound relations was for Singapore to be able to stand on its own as equals with other nations, he said.
Lee also said that Singapore could not approach bilateral issues in a subservient manner, citing a letter from a Singaporean to Singapore Straits Times on Jan 27 who commented on Singapore-Malaysia relations.
The writer had said: "It has been said that Singapore is often treated as a little brother by Malaysia and, hence, is bullied. Perhaps we have not behaved as a good 'adik' should. Maybe we should be humbler about our achievements."
But Lee felt that the writer was naive and mistaken. "Sovereign countries cannot behave like this. If we do as the writer suggested, we will not survive as a nation."
"We must approach bilateral issues in a constructive but not subservient manner. We will stand firm on fundamentals, while seeking win-win solutions. We will respect the differences we have with our neighbours, but defend what we stand for, so that we can live at peace, co-operate and prosper together," added Lee.
Lee also said the little 'red dot' analogy that former Indonesian President Professor B. J. Habibie used to describe Singapore, is still haunting Singaporeans, as he reminded the island that it is indeed very small and vulnerable.
He said, Habibie, who succeeded Suharto, held a totally different attitude towards Singapore.
Habibie in his now famous interview with the Asian Wall Street Journal on Aug 4, 1998, said Lee, did not have the feeling that Singapore was a friend, and pointed to a map, saying: "It's O.K. with me, but there are 211 million people (in Indonesia). All the green (area) is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore."
Lee said: "This was a vivid and valuable reminder that we are indeed very small and very vulnerable. The little red dot has entered the psyche of every Singaporean, and become a permanent part of our vocabulary, for which we are grateful.
"Given its sheer size and its proximity to Singapore, Indonesia's stability is of critical importance to the city state of four million people. If Indonesia is in chaos, we will be engulfed by their situation. If Indonesia is hostile, we will have a problem," said Lee.
For nearly 30 years, Lee added, Singapore had enjoyed constructive bilateral relationship with Indonesia under the leadership of President Suharto who paved the way for ASEAN and regional cooperation.
However, the political and social unrest during the Asian Crisis eventually brought down Suharto, and resulted in a series of changes in Indonesia's political leadership. "Not all the new leaders were as well disposed towards Singapore as was Suharto," Lee said.
Now, under President Megawati Sukarnopurtri, relations, he said, had stabilised. "We have regained some of the constructive co-operation before the Asian crisis. But we are now dealing with a different Indonesia. The old Indonesia will not be recreated," he added.
The deputy prime minister also spoke of the rise of political Islam. Previously restrained under Suharto, political Islam now featured prominently in the Indonesian polity, he said.
Its rise reflected both domestic political forces "let loose" after Suharto, and also the worldwide Islamic revival".
Lee said: "Indonesian politicians, regardless of their personal beliefs, cannot ignore the Islamic constituency as they prepare for the 2004 Presidential elections."
Since independence, Indonesians, he said, knew that if religious fanaticism gained ascendancy, it would tear apart the social fabric and divide their diverse and pluralistic nation.
"If the world view of Indonesia or its leaders shift, it will have profound implications for Singapore and the region," he added. - Bernama