MM’s apology an important move to mend ties with Pak Lah’s government

MM Lee says sorry that recent comments caused discomfort to PM Abdullah
by Farah Abdul Rahim, Channel NewsAsia
2 October 2006

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew says he is sorry that his recent comments about Chinese Malaysians had caused Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi a great deal of discomfort.

Mr Lee had said during an international forum in Singapore more than two weeks ago that ethnic Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia are being marginalised.

In his letter to Mr Abdullah, Mr Lee said he had no intention to meddle in Malaysian politics. Nor does he have the power to influence Malaysia’s politics or to incite the feelings of Chinese in the country.

The remarks about Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority were made at what Mr Lee called a ‘free flowing dialogue session’ with former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

Setting the context, Mr Lee explained he was speaking to a liberal audience of Westerners who wanted to see a stronger opposition in Singapore.

He reiterated that Singapore needs a strong government to maintain good relations with neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia and to interact with their politicians who consider Singapore to be ‘Chinese’.

Mr Lee said he did not say anything more than what he had said many times before, and added he said less than what he had written in his 1998 memoirs.

Mr Lee said UMNO leaders, including former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed and
others, had on numerous occasions, publicly warned Malaysian Malays that if they
ever lose power, they risk the same fate as Malays in Singapore, whom they allege are marginalised and discriminated against.

Mr Lee cited examples of such comments in the letter’s annex, quoting Dr Mahathir and other leaders in media reports over the years about the “marginalisation” of Singapore Malays.

The Minister Mentor reiterated that Singapore understands the reality of Malaysian politics.

Singapore has never protested at such attacks on Singapore’s multi-racial system or policies but merely clarified Singapore’s position and explained to Singaporeans the root cause of such difficulties in bilateral relations.

Also in his letter, the Minister Mentor said relations between the 2 countries have improved since Mr Abdullah took the helm in November 2003 and that both Singaporeans and Malaysians appreciate this.

Mr Lee concluded that the last thing he wanted to do, after a decade of troubled relations with the former Prime Minister, was to cause Mr Abdullah a great deal of discomfort. – CNA/ch

It’s a rare for Lee Kuan Yew to issue such personal and lengthy apology to a Malaysian leader for a controversial statement he made. The last time MM Lee apologised to the Malaysians was back in 1997 when he said in an affidavit for his libel case against opposition politician Tang Liang Hong that Johor was “notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings”. Even then, that apology was issued by his press secretary.

Bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia have been on an upswing since Abdullah took over as PM in 2003. Both countries have been keen to make up for the lost years during which it was impossible to move relations forward with Mahathir’s belligerent attitude towards Singapore.

MM’s decision to issue this apology was probably due to several factors. Firstly, Abdullah had written personally to MM asking for an explanation. This showed his sincerity in wanting to convey his disappointment with MM’s statement. Mahathir would have never done that if he were PM now. He would just have done what he did again this time – ranting and raving at Singapore, making wild counter-accusations and putting us down.

Abdullah is embroiled in a crisis within his own party because of Mahathir’s very public opposition to his leadership. Failure to respond to Abdullah’s letter with an apology would make Abdullah look weak in front of his critics, and give Mahathir more ammunition to attack him with.

It is in Singapore’s interest that Abdullah retains the confidence of his party and his people, because such a rational and moderate Malaysian leader does not come by often. We have to make hay while the sun shines and avoid jeopardising our relations with Malaysia at this juncture. In fact, our Government has in recent months even been willing to stomach similar insults from Malaysia. Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin earlier this month claimed that Penang Malays were marginalised, just like Singapore Malays.

It would be interesting to see how the Government responds to the Indonesians. So far, several Indonesian MPs have demanded an apology and Deplu (the Indonesian foreign ministry) has démarched our ambassador in Jakarta to express their unhappiness. However, there haven’t been any statements from either President Yudhoyono or Vice President Jusuf Kalla on this issue. MFA will probably issue a clarification through our embassy, rather than a personal apology from MM. In any case, MM has left town for a long trip to France and the US, so it gives him a perfect excuse not to respond to the Indonesians.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.