Transcript of the joint press conference by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, at the Istana, 12 January 2004, Singapore


Mr Goh: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. As you know, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is on his round as the new Prime Minister of Malaysia. It is a very good tradition that new prime ministers go calling on their fellow prime ministers in ASEAN and I welcome him warmly as Prime Minister of Malaysia and, of course, also as a friend. I have known Abdullah Badawi for many years, but this is his first trip here as the Prime Minister, so the welcome, I would say, is more than usual for your visit to Singapore."

Mr Abdullah: "Thank you."

Mr Goh: "We took advantage of his courtesy visit to review our bilateral relations and basically both of us are determined to find ways to put our bilateral relations on the right track. It's important that we do so, not just for ourselves but also for ASEAN, and we discussed ways on how we should maximise the common areas in order to strengthen our cooperation for the benefit of ourselves and for ASEAN. I had a very good, frank and friendly exchange with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. I told him frankly how I saw we could move our relations forward. I have been at this for many years now discussing issues with Prime Minister Mahathir and, over the years, the issues which we discussed as a package and, later on as individual items outside the package, have ended up in what I told him as "dead knots". It's like Gordian knots. You can't untie them. So I suggested that maybe for the future, we should refer these "dead-knot issues" to third parties to arbitrate or to adjudicate. Then we can look forward to cooperation in many areas and if there are new issues, we will try and resolve them before they become tied in knots which we could not disentangle. But Prime Minister Badawi prefers that we give it another try. He would like to offer new ideas. He wants to think out of the box to see how we can resolve the issues. Basically, he prefers discussion before we move them to a third party. I listened to him. I told him that I'm agreeable to his approach if he can come up with something which we can consider. So that's the agreement that we have: Let's try and discuss and see how we can resolve the issues. If we can't resolve them, both of us will be alert to the danger of tying ourselves in knots again. So if we can't resolve the issues, we would recognise it and then, of course, we would at that point of time, refer them to third parties. But, of course, we hope that doesn't come about. We do want to try and see how we can move our relations forward. Basically, those are the main points which we discussed this morning. There were some other points which the Prime Minister may be happy to elaborate on."

Mr Abdullah: "Thank you, Prime Minister Chok Tong. You have reflected the kind of decisions that we had made. I am very happy that I am able to come and to meet Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and also the opportunity to discuss generally the state of our bilateral relations. And at the same time, of course, we are concerned about the various issues, the bilateral issues that have not been resolved. And I feel that we shouldn't allow these bilateral issues to remain unresolved or later on to pass over to somebody else, to a third party or to arbitration. I have suggested to Prime Minister Chok Tong that I would prefer that we discuss. We discuss this, and it means perhaps discuss all over again. But we have to think "out of the box". We have to find some other ways, some other strategies in order to resolve all these issues. I'm happy that Prime Minister Chok Tong has said "okay", he was agreeable to that suggestion and was asking me what are the specific things that I would like to suggest. I said "good, if that's what you feel, then I will come back with some very, very specific issues and some suggestions on how we can resolve these issues". We understand each other that we would want to resolve this. We must solve. We cannot allow these issues to remain unsolved forever and ever. We must and I think it is important for the sake of our bilateral relations. We look at Singapore and Malaysia as partners in many ways and this is important for ASEAN. We do not want to be two countries which are having problems within ASEAN. We want ASEAN to be strong. We want ASEAN to be a good market. We want ASEAN to be economically, as a group, very competitive. Therefore, whatever differences we may have with Singapore, we must try to solve those problems as soon as possible. So I hope to be able to come back again and talk things over in more detail and hopefully, from there, we must move forward.

I also did suggest that we may have to unscramble the package we made. We may have to unscramble the package because in the package, there may be some issues which can be resolved immediately without having to wait until everything within the package must be solved. It takes a long time. Some issues will take a long time. So because these issues take a long time, the simpler issues cannot be resolved when actually it could be done, very, very easily. The Malaysians, and I believe Singaporeans too, would look forward that we can make things move forward. We can make things move forward by getting some things resolved rather than everything must be in that one package and nothing is resolved. And it is not good, I believe, for all people, certainly for Malaysians, perhaps also for Singaporeans. So we have to pluck some low-hanging fruits and deal with it before the "musang" comes and take them away.

And if I may add this, Chok Tong, we have also agreed to resume our annual games, MFA annual games, Home Affairs annual games and then the senior administrative officials' annual games. I think it's good. I think by now there may be new people already, new secretary-generals, new permanent secretaries who have not met their counterpart in Malaysia. So the new games will give them the opportunity to meet. And I'm happy that - I say thank you to Prime Minister Chok Tong - that he and his Singapore ministers would be going to Johor Baru for the Chinese New Year Open House. We are ready to welcome them. Thank you."

Mr Goh: "Thank you for the invitation to go up to Johor Baru. I have also invited Prime Minister Abdullah to come down to Singapore socially. And when he comes down socially, we would just have social talk. It's not meant to have exchanges on bilateral issues, just a social visit. So he will come down at the right time. We are tight for time. I think we can take a few questions, maybe two from Malaysia, two from Singapore. I shall pick the Malaysian questioners and you do the honour of picking the Singapore side. "

Q: "My name is Syed, I'm from New Straits Times. What I would like to know is whether this means that all the matters that have been up for arbitration will now be cancelled or shelved?"

Mr Goh: "No, those which are up for arbitration will proceed, like Pedra Branca and Singapore's land reclamation which has gone to ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea). These two will continue."

Mr Abdullah: 'Yes, yes."

Q: "Paul Jacob from Straits Times. I was going to actually ask how you were going to move the relationship forward. You keep talking about that although you have outlined some of the areas and some new approaches that are going to be taken. But can you give us a sense now given that these perhaps apply to the previous issues but in future the relationship where you see it going and also within the context of ASEAN how do you see issues being dealt with?"

Mr Abdullah: "Well, since I have been asked to respond to questions from the Singapore media. What we were talking in Prime Minister Chok Tong's office just now was on the subject of how to move forward. We don't want to be shackled and retarded because we have bilateral issues that cannot be resolved. We are aware that there are other areas of cooperation which are going on very well. Trade and some other cooperation - I don't want to go one by one - but they are doing very well. There is no reason why we, together, cannot do well. So that's the reason. The strategy is, as I said, we have to talk, we have to discuss the issues that we have at the moment and Prime Minister Chok Tong said "okay" to my suggestion and I said I'm coming back for more detailed discussions bringing my officials. Then hopefully we can move forward and it depends of, course, on what I have to propose and how Chok Tong will resolve. But we are really committed to solving these bilateral issues. Some may take a longer time, some may take a shorter time. I have already explained what we need to do. So these are steps to move forward. Besides there may be new issues, new problems; we still have to deal with them. But Prime Minister Chok Tong and I have also agreed that if we have something really problematical coming up, that we try to resolve it as quickly as possible, even with a phone call; that we can do. If that is not enough, we can always meet, either I come here or he goes to KL. It doesn't matter, either way, so long as the problems are attended to immediately before it escalates into or snowballs into a situation that we will find difficult to solve."

Mr Goh: "There will be more use of the telephones in future; the way we dealt with the SARS problem."

Mr Abdullah: "That was a good example."

Mr Goh: "Pak Lah was acting Prime Minister then, so I gave him a call and I could see that because of the telephone calls to one another, we were able to very quickly have a meeting, and we came up with solutions and measures to contain the SARS problem. The phones will be worked much more in future. Not necessarily just the issues; I think also for friendly chit chat."

Q: "Saiful from Radio Singapore International. (Speaking in Malay) Datuk Seri, if I can get your answers in Malay."

Mr Abdullah: "In the Malay Language, Bahasa Malaysia, yes."

Q: "There are two questions. Just now, Prime Minister Goh mentioned one of the measures to renew ties between Malaysia and Singapore is to maximise common areas." (translated from Bahasa Melayu).

Mr Abdullah: " maximise...?"

Q: "The common areas. Maximise common areas. So, what are these common areas that will be looked into? And the second question Datuk Seri, what are the first and immediate steps to be taken by both countries to renew ties. Thank you." (translated from Bahasa Melayu)

Mr Abdullah: "The common areas are those that are related to the cooperation that we are undertaking, such as tourism. We can have a programme where we can promote both countries. So, if one comes to Singapore, then one can go to Malaysia, even if it is just up to Malacca. It's all right. And if one is going to Malaysia, one can go to Singapore. We can promote this and we can also benefit from it. We can cooperate in areas such as education and trade. We can have cooperation between departments such as the Home Affairs, exchanging of information on many things which are of interest to us, building capacity in areas which are equally important to both of us. We can do that. That is what we meant by cooperation in the various fields, which we need to expand further. Another point is how we can move several steps forward. What I have explained just now is that we want to prove that we can move forward. We can do that when we have the commitment to resolve the present problems shackling us, which have prevented us from moving faster forward, that is, the present bilateral issues. We have agreed to hold talks and then negotiations on these matters. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has agreed to my proposal and he asked what are the matters that I intend to bring up. I agreed and will come bringing certain proposals. This to me is an approach that will bring us forward to discuss other matters." (translated from Bahasa Melayu).

Q: "Good afternoon, Prime Minister Goh, I'm Anne Edwards from NTV7 Malaysia. Prime Minister, what are some of the key issues, the main issues which will be taken out of the package and resolved immediately and have you all given yourself a deadline as to when this will resolved? As to your statement, that when Tun Dr Mahathir was around, things ended up in dead knots, can you further clarify? Does this mean that Datuk Seri Abdullah's premiership has opened a new chapter in Malaysia-Singapore relationship?"

Mr Goh: "On the first part of your question, you know my view. I thought the issues should be referred to a third party from now. But Pak Lah would prefer to have re-look at the issues. So that first part actually should be answered by him. What are the issues which can be taken out? We did not go into details. We talked about the approach. I agreed with the approach and he will come back to me later on what can be done. Which are the "low hanging fruits"? We do not know yet. We have to look at that and then we would examine the "low hanging fruits". So that question will be answered later on. When I talked about "dead knots", I meant (how) both sides, when we were discussing, in the process of discussion, we could not come to an agreement and things got entangled. They are difficult to untie. Pak Lah prefers to have a re-look so I said let's have a re-look, and I hope if they can't be untied, then we can still find ways (to move) forward, at that point of time, and refer to a third party. But there are issues which need not end up in dead knots and these are the issues which we will try to identify. So this is a new approach. How it will end up at this stage, I would not want to anticipate, but we will bring with us our sincerity to work for a solution, to put our relations back on good track. Thank you."


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