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Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew returns to old lion's den
Updated: 2005-04-25 20:22

Modern Singapore's founding father puts his seal on warmer relations with neighbour Malaysia this week when he makes his first visit to the Malaysian capital since 2001, when ties were badly frayed.

Lee Kuan Yew, who turned his tiny state into an economic force after it split from Malaysia in 1965, is a controversial figure among Malaysia's ethnic Malay majority which feared at the time his mainly ethnic Chinese political party might dominate.

Lee, 81, travelling to Kuala Lumpur to speak at an anti-corruption conference, is due to pay a courtesy call on Tuesday on Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose ascent to power 18 months ago marked a watershed in relations.

"This has nothing to do with bilateral matters," a Singapore embassy official said, explaining that Lee, now the country's third-ranking minister as "minister mentor", was visiting merely to gauge the new mood in Malaysia, not hold official talks.

Since Abdullah came to power in October 2003, replacing Lee's long-time political sparring partner Mahathir Mohamad, the tone of bilateral relations has improved, but actual political breakthroughs on a series of disputes have yet to materialise.

The two countries are due on Tuesday to sign an agreement over one of their smaller disputes, involving Singapore's land reclamation work in the thin strip of sea that separates them, but resolution of major disputes has been more elusive.

These include a decades-old row over the price of Malaysian water supplied to Singapore, a Malaysian plan to replace a causeway across the Singapore Strait with a modern bridge and a Malaysian railway line that runs into the heart of Singapore.


Business and investment ties, by contrast, have flourished in tangible ways, including Malaysian approval for Singapore state investment agency Temasek Holdings to make strategic investments in the country's banking and telecommunications sectors.

Investors see the next major test of these strengthening ties as the outcome of a bid by Malaysian casino operator Genting Bhd to build two casinos in Singapore, which recently announced an end to its ban on casino gambling.

"If Singapore really means it (about improving ties), they will give Genting one of the casinos," said Richard Cohen, a senior vice-president at CIMB Securities, adding that most major new investments had been from Singapore into Malaysia.

Lee told Singapore's parliament this month that he found Genting's proposal the most interesting of the 19 submitted by global casino operators.

On a lighter note, Singapore and Malaysia have also revived a cross-straits musical gala after an eight-year hiatus.

Titled "Muzika Ekstravaganza", the musical was co-produced by the state broadcasters of the two countries and was telecast live to audiences in both countries on Saturday.

"These shows will strengthen the bonds and create an additional cultural bridge between Singapore and Malaysia," Lee Boon Yang, Singapore's Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, told reporters on Sunday.

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