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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Singapore to use ex-PM as Malaysia go-between

Singapore to use ex-PM as Malaysia go-between

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia, Oct. 5 ?/font> Singapore's new prime minister named his predecessor on Tuesday as emissary to strengthen ties with neighbour Malaysia, but his move to delegate the task raised a doubt over the current mood of reconciliation.

Lee Hsien Loong, who became premier in August, made the announcement after the first face-to-face meeting between the new leaders of the two Southeast Asian nations aimed at putting an often-strained relationship on a new footing.
''I have asked Mr Goh Chok Tong to continue to look after these bilateral issues because he is familiar with them,'' Lee, son of modern Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, told a joint news conference in Malaysia's administrative capital.
''They are complex... it will take me quite some time to master (them).''
His Malaysian counterpart, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said he had accepted Lee's decision to task Goh as negotiator. Relations between the two nations have been uneasy since the early 1960s when Singapore joined and then quit Malaysia.
Neither premier took questions but the mood was cordial and Lee slipped in a joke, in marked contrast to the stony-faced joint news conferences held when Lee senior and Malaysian veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad were in power in the 1980s.
Abdullah, a consensus-style politician who succeeded Mahathir a year ago, said he and Lee wanted to improve business and investment ties, especially in tourism and airline industries. But Lee's decision to use Goh raised eyebrows in Malaysia.
''The government has been banking on hope of renegotiation with Singapore's new leader,'' political analyst Shamsul Akmar Musa Kamal said. ''How can he delegate it to a lesser person?
''Is it an effort to speed up negotiations or just another delaying tactic?''
A spokesman for Singapore's prime minister, whose visit was part of a tour of Southeast Asian capitals, dismissed any suggestion Lee was distancing himself from the task of resolving long-standing bilateral disputes: ''He is the prime minister and he still has to make the final decision.''

The price of water that the Malaysian peninsula pipes to the island of Singapore heads a package of issues that have complicated relations between the countries since they formally separated in 1965. Malaysia complains that Singapore pays a pittance for the water under agreements dating back to that era.
Abdullah, who visited Singapore in January, has set a conciliatory tone by stating a willingness to restart failed talks over such disputes.
Other outstanding issues include land reclamation near the Johor Strait between Malaysia and Singapore, a row over a new bridge across the strait and Malaysian sovereignty over a rail line and station in Singapore.
''I think relations have improved over the past 12 to 18 months and I think we need to build on this,'' Lee said, citing Singapore's recent resumption of Malaysian chicken imports after a recent outbreak of bird flu in Malaysia's north.
Abdullah has suggested the two sides first strengthen ties before tackling the hard issues.
He and Lee spoke on Tuesday of jointly promoting Singapore and Malaysia as tourist destinations.
They pledged ongoing cooperation on security in the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest sea lanes, and signed an updated tax treaty that lowers withholding tax rates. No details of the new tax rates were available.
(Additional reporting by Jalil Hamid)

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