Thursday, September 28, 2006


Straits Times Interactive - Prime News
Sept 28, 2006 Thu

By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur and Azhar Ghani, Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta

MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has written to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew seeking an explanation for his recent comment that Malaysia and Indonesia marginalised their Chinese citizens.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told The Straits Times yesterday that the letter was sent a few days ago, through the two countries' foreign ministries.

'It seeks an explanation, and pointed out that this sort of statement is not welcome. It is sensitive and dangerous. We are very unhappy,' he said.

Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia T. Jasudasen will be summoned today, and will meet the foreign ministry's secretary-general, he added.

In Jakarta, Singapore's Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri was asked for an explanation by the foreign ministry on Tuesday.

The foreign ministry has also instructed its embassy in Singapore to lodge a protest, said its director for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Mr Yuri Thamrin, yesterday. He said: 'The ambassador was called in to help clear the matter.

'It's an old story. We are seeking clarification from the Singaporean side and we are still waiting for it.'

An official with the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta said yesterday that the Republic would respond to Indonesia through appropriate channels in due course.

MM Lee had made the comments while answering a question at a dialogue for good governance in Singapore on Sept 15.

He said that the attitude of Indonesia and Malaysia, which 'systematically marginalised' their ethnic Chinese minorities, shaped the way they treated ties with the Republic.

He added that the two countries 'want Singapore, to put it simply, to be like their Chinese - compliant'.

Over the past week, leaders in Malaysia, including the prime minister, have spoken out against the comments.

In Indonesia, the issue surfaced on Tuesday after The Jakarta Post ran a report on two legislators criticising MM Lee and demanding an apology.

The paper also noted that almost 10 years after the passage of anti-discrimination laws, there were still
reports of minorities experiencing difficulties in obtaining birth certificates, identity cards, family cards and citizenship certificates.

Yesterday, the Koran Tempo daily ran an editorial which said Indonesia had got rid of many discriminatory laws and regulations since Mr Suharto stepped down in 1998.

It cited the new citizenship law passed in July this year, which exempts Indonesian Chinese from having to produce proof of citizenship or undergo the naturalisation process if they were born to Indonesian parents.

The editorial also noted that while there are still some 60 laws and regulations that are racially biased, this did not mean that Indonesia would continue to 'systematically oppress' its Chinese citizens.

This comes as no surprise.

My win-win scenario was that Lee would explain/apologize without being asked (wishful thinking I know) and that Malaysian government would take the opportunity to engage the population in an open, honest and fruitful debate on the issue (which is even more wishful). (Can’t comment on Jakarta’s reaction as I know precious little about the Indonesian angle).

That the Malaysian government is seeking an “explanation” only suggests that they are in denial. Politically, however, one can see how they are left with little choice, what with the ongoing rift (and hence competition for support) within UMNO.

Seah Chiang Nee provides an interesting take on Lee’s comments, suggesting that Lee wants to remind the new (Singapore) generation that being small doesn’t mean Singapore must be compliant to its bigger neighbours.

Given that the Lee’s remarks were apparently made off-the-cuff during a Q&A session, Seah may be giving Lee a little more credit than is due, but the logic is sound nonetheless. Singapore political and economic survival does require a careful balance of amity and rivalry with its neighbours.

But back in Malaysia, Lee’s remarks could be seen as:

A wake-up call which in the longer term might lead to debate and reform which ultimately brings Malaysians of all races closer (wishful thinking again); or
A “naughty” statement (as DPM Najib puts it) which is divisive, and causes (further) unhappiness amongst the minorities in Malaysia.

Lee would have his own interests and agenda with regards to what he wants to tell Singaporeans and the international community. But it is up to the Malaysian government and media to decide how his remarks are viewed, and will impact upon Malaysia.

I think it is time we all did some wishful thinking.

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