Transcript of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's Remarks to Singapore Media on Singapore-Malaysia Relations, 16 Feb 2003


Q: The recent speech by Dr Mahathir seems to have quite a few jibes aimed at the Singapore Government and people. What's your gut reaction?

Mr Goh: Many Western leaders employ professional speechwriters to help them give a spin to their positions. Dr Mahathir is a very good spin doctor. Compare him with the best, I think he spins a story very well. We in Singapore are less good in spinning stories. We prefer the more serious approach, giving facts and figures. For example, the Economic Review Committee is a very serious document full of facts and figures. So it's a contrast in approach between Singapore and Dr Mahathir.

Q: He's made quite a serious allegation that there's a rift between the two leaders, yourself and Senior Minister Lee. Is there any truth to this?

Mr Goh: I don't think there was any allegation. He just recounted a story of what Mr Lee told him. So if you want to verify that, you have got to ask Mr Lee that question. But it is true that I was against the knocking down of the Causeway from Singapore's point of view because I saw no benefit whatsoever in replacing a perfectly functioning historical Causeway with a new bridge. From Singapore's point of view, it would mean spending more millions and probably having to charge motorists a higher toll in order to recover the investment because the Malaysians will charge a higher toll and Singapore likewise would charge a higher toll. So I was concerned at the political impact on Singaporeans. Nevertheless, since Malaysia wanted to have the bridge, as I wrote in my letter, between a bridge which is half in length and a bridge which is full across the Causeway, I prefer the longer bridge. It would look much nicer, much better, more beautiful. So I supported that, provided it's part of a deal. If it's part of a deal, then I could explain why Singapore is spending so much on the new bridge to replace our half of the Causeway, because we're getting future water. So, that was my position.

Q: PM, There's a perception that Dr M is picking on you. Do you agree and what do you think?

Mr Goh: No, I just shrug it off. As I said, he spins stories very well. I shrug it off.

Q: Tell us about your working relationship with Dr Mahathir. Has it been difficult?

Mr Goh: When we meet at conferences, obviously the relationship is better than cordial, we get along well. But when you have issues, he would have to protect Malaysia's interests and I certainly would have to protect Singapore's interests. So on different positions, we take different approaches to solving a problem.

Q: So were there instances when he was not happy or he showed his unhappiness when you had meetings with him?

Mr Goh: No, we are both Prime Ministers, we have got a job to do and when we disagree, we disagree quite politely.

Q: So do you see any more stories, will we indulge him by keeping at explaining?

Mr Goh: No, we are not good in spinning stories and neither do we want to spin stories. So we would, of course, come out with the facts and figures.

Q: Do you think there's an agenda on Dr Mahathir's part?

Mr Goh: I wouldn't like to speculate. Our approach is a simple one. We have been negotiating for some four years now and instead of closing the gap, the gap has actually become wider with each successive round of negotiation. So we came to the stage where we thought it was best to resolve the matter by referring the disagreement, in this case over the price of current water and whether there's a right to a review, to arbitration. That way, we actually put the dispute on the backburner. So once both sides agree to refer to arbitration, then it's no more an issue. We would abide by the decision of the arbitrators. And we can then concentrate on cooperating to resolve bigger issues like economic cooperation and the fight against terrorism. There are many other bigger challenges. Singapore and Malaysia are two of the more developed economies in Asean. So really at this time, Singapore and Malaysia should be working together with others like Thailand to see how we can shore up economic growth in Asean. That is our approach. I would prefer to now concentrate on where we can be positive, have good relations.

Q: Is this psychological warfare distracting the population from the bigger issues at stake?"

Mr Goh: It's unfortunate that there is this dispute between Malaysia and Singapore. It is distracting the populations of both countries. But we've come to the stage where I think we can move on. And certainly from Singapore's point of view, we're working on moving on to a more positive relationship on other aspects, recognising that we have a dispute over some very important issues.

Q: He also made snide remarks about Singaporeans being rich and Malaysians poor and that kind of thing. Once in a while Singapore MPs ask for Singaporeans to be patriotic by not going over to Malaysia. What are your thoughts?

Mr Goh: I myself am for good people-to-people relations. Disputes there will always be between neighbours and even if we resolve the water issue some other time, there could be some other dispute. So I'm a firm believer in cooperation between neighbours. So on my own, I will not issue a call for Singaporeans not to go to Malaysia because if you do that you are actually saying between people and people, let's not have any relations. Last night, I had a dialogue session with my grassroots leaders. This is part of my New Year gathering with them. Some grassroots leaders made the point that whilst government doesn't have any position on this, as Singaporeans we should not be so thick-skinned. We should ourselves on our own feel the need to show that we don't have to go to Malaysia. They were speaking as grassroots leaders. Of course they asked what's my position. My position is, I leave it to you. If you are thick-skinned, then you go. If you are not so thick-skinned then, you don't go. In other words, there are Singaporeans who feel that we should behave as Singaporeans at this stage and not go, respond to the call. But my own position is, let's be mature on this, let's have good people-to-people relations.

Q: Some of the comments that Dr Mahathir has made, he uses phrases that trivialise the entire bilateral issue. What's your reaction?

Mr Goh: I think, from now on, I would not want to go back into the past. I want to move on, and concentrate on the future. There's no point in commenting on what he said, and then he'll comment on what I said, and we get into this unnecessary verbal engagement. So I rather we move on. Let's resolve this in the best way possible. In the case of Pedra Branca, we are moving to the International Court of Justice. In the case of water, let's go to arbitration, I would say international arbitration or arbitration in accordance with the Water Agreements, which is arbitration in accordance with Johor laws. That's my position.

Q: But certain issues like the bridge, you can't refer it to arbitration?

Mr Goh: No, the bridge is off from Singapore's point of view for the time being because Malaysia, in this case Dr Mahathir, wanted to de-couple the issue. So once they de-couple the issue, the bridge is off from Singapore's point of view. Would you want to pay more to go on a bridge to Johor Baru, when there's a Causeway? And the tolls will go up maybe five, six times. So how do you justify that?

Q: So it was not just nostalgia on your part, as he put it?

Mr Goh: I'm more a practical person than a nostalgic person. Yes, in some instances, I'm a romantic at heart. I read novels in my younger days and I liked literature. But I chose economics as my subject. In university, there was a choice for me whether to do English or Economics. So the practical side of me ruled. So between nostalgia and the practical approach, I'm more practical in my approach.

Q: So is there a chance of the bridge being built after you retire, like he said?

Mr Goh: Well, it depends on whether there's a deal and in fact as far as I know, my position was not that it should be built after I retire.

Q: As far as unresolved and bilateral issues are concerned, what kind of message do you want to give Malaysia in order to move forward?

Mr Goh: Well, I've been emphasising just now -- let's negotiate as we have done. But at some point, we have got to realise that negotiations may not bring about results. So in this case, the package has been dismantled, de-coupled from the water issue, we have to stick by the provisions in the Water Agreements and if you canA?t agree, the best way forward is to go to arbitration, which is our position. And in fact, Malaysia has given us notice to revise the water price some months ago. They wrote to PUB. So we will therefore respond that, if you can't agree on the water price, then go to arbitration. I think that's the best way to move forward. You engage in further verbal acrobatics, it will get us nowhere and it distracts the people and this is not a time to distract our own people. Certainly from our point of view, we want to speak up quite frankly to Singaporeans about the economic situation, about further retrenchments in some organisations and how do we cope with the slower economic growth for this year. The main thing is the uncertainties facing us. There are great uncertainties this year. We don't need another uncertainty in our relations with Malaysia.

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