Transcript of doorstop interview with Foreign Minister George Yeo and Malaysian Foreign Minister, Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim on 17 April 2008

Minister Yeo: I'm very happy to welcome my dear friend, Datuk Seri Rais Yatim, Foreign Minister of Malaysia to Singapore this morning. He has made Singapore his first intro visit to an overseas country since becoming Foreign Minister. We are very touched by this special honour which I think is an expression of the special relationship that exists between our two countries. We discussed how we can do more together to integrate our economies, to facilitate connectivity between the two countries. Yesterday, the Iskandar-Malaysia Authority has established an office in Singapore and Menteri Besar Ghani had talked about his hope that the two urban rails could be linked up.

This morning, just before lunch, Foreign Minister Rais Yatim had a discussion with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Prime Minister Lee responded positively to this idea of linking up the two urban rails. So this is for Joint Ministerial Committee to take up and the link should not be a difficult one and it will bring immediate advantages to both sides. We discussed wider cooperation in the Iskandar-Malaysia area including facilitating the movement of people. Then we also talked about Pedra Branca because it is likely that judgement will be made in May, maybe mid-May or end of May and both of us had agreed that if Malaysia were to win, then we will congratulate Malaysia. Foreign Minister Rais Yatim told me if Singapore were to win, he will congratulate Singapore and that whatever the decision, we will accept it and it will not affect bilateral relations. The lighthouse will continue to provide valuable facility to all navigators so nothing should change and this is the common position that we take and that we are proudly happy to declare to all Malaysians and Singaporeans.

We also talked about the importance of ASEAN and on many of the most important issues like ASEAN Economic Integration on developing regional resilience, Malaysia and Singapore are almost in complete agreement and that we pledged to work together to strengthen links to our immediate neighbouring countries, Indonesia and Thailand, worked with them to ensure that the ASEAN Charter is ratified and fully implemented, giving us all a common interest in each other's wellbeing. So that in essence was what we discussed over lunch, we didn't have a formal meeting, we just chatted over lunch because we don't really need to sit down across the table to speak in a formal way and I will be very happy now to pass your microphones over to Minister Rais Yatim.

Minister Rais Yatim: Well, certainly thanking the Foreign Minister of Singapore, my good friend, the Brigadier-General George, is the first thing on my mind. Truly as what he has expressed, so eloquently and completely true, we share what has been expressed. He has taken all the kernel out of the fruit, so I think I'm only left with the shell. Well, having the shell is sometimes better, that is to say least and not too much but having said that in a jovial way; I would like to say that Malaysia regards this visit as a very important visit between two friends. And between Malaysia and Singapore, there is no other way; there is only one way street and that is to forge ahead together for a future within ASEAN and for a future to share the good fortunes of what the world would have to offer. No one will come to us and help us except ourselves. Therefore, the commonalities between the two nations should be on top priority list and the differences, whatever they are, should be left to be scored later. And having said that as well, the announcement made by my colleague from Johor, Yang Amat Berhormat Menteri Besar Datuk Ghani is actually a very helpful index to show that we are serious in the forging ahead of our bilaterals and at the same time to consider the fact that Singapore is our second biggest business partner in the world, coming only after United States, that is to say about 142 billion ringgit per year worth of relationship.

Well, we don't say that the ringgit and the sen matter so much but like they say most of the time, money may be the root of all evil but sometimes it eases the nerves. That is the jovial way of saying we need each other and that for the creation of the ASEAN community, we are basing our facts on the commonalities and I will try my best to offer the kind of facility that is required through the foreign office and we establish a special relationship in the sense that our future is together.

Question: Minister, Senior Minister Goh was heading the Singapore side to negotiate the outstanding issues with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. What has happened to those discussions? Are there any plans to further these discussions?

Minister Yeo: We have the Joint Ministerial Committee on the development of Iskandar-Malaysia which is I think an important icon of cooperation between the two sides. Last year, the two Prime Ministers had their retreat in Langkawi which was very successful and they are hoping that Singapore can host the next retreat sometime in the near future.

Question: Datuk Seri Rais, earlier or before you did mention something about your intention to develop special ties with neighbouring countries that includes Singapore. Now what do you actually mean by developing these special ties and how do you intend to do it?

Minister Rais Yatim: Well, primarily, we have to look at our neighbours within the scope of nearness and the common things we share. So we notice, that with Singapore, we have the Causeway, we trade with each other every day, our people travel to and fro and the cultural, political and historical ties are too substantive to deny any way of saying otherwise. With Brunei, we share the border as well. With Indonesia in Kalimantan and the Straits of Malacca, and not to forget with Thailand, we share the same border. Therefore, with these four countries, Malaysia has to look at the relationships as closely as possible and to develop that kind of friendship through commerce, culture, people to people as well as communication. And if we lose sight of these, I think we are not realistic in a community of a nation within ASEAN and I would say that having established this purview, we would work on it and harmony is the key word, trusting each other, and what is committed through the rule of law, through international arrangement, we must respect. If we do not do that, then being neighbourly is not substantive enough. So we have the perimeter there, and as long as we recognise this, I think friendship would bloom and the possibility of not trusting each other is by the wayside. This is the message we ought to develop I believe and as I have been speaking with Mr George Yeo, my friend, we will, both of us work as positively as possible, following the lines of honour.

Question: How do you respond to the Malaysia's opposition claims that there are enough defectors coming from the ruling coalition for them to seize power? Are you concerned about that?

Minister Rais Yatim: Suddenly we are not talking about the same format anymore. Anyway, these are just what we regard as oppositional possibilities. They are theses being written in their minds but we have not registered any factual scenario as such. So it is left to be seen. On the other side, I think the government is not sitting idle either, we have to do our homework and our hard work and we will face them.

Question: Is there a timeline for the bullet train project, linking to IDR to S'pore, is there a timeline?

Minister Rais Yatim: It's too early for me to say anything concrete on that. Other than what has been announced by the Menteri Besar of Johor yesterday, beyond that I think the committee which has been set up, and which is also being represented by the relevant ministers both from KL and Singapore, they will iron out whatever is pertinent as the first phase and the second phase as well as the following phases that are required for the development of Wilayah Iskandar.

Question: Minister, what's your response on latest announcement coming out from Myanmar that Aung San Suu Kyi can actually vote in the Constitutional Referendum?

Minister Yeo: I have not seen that latest announcement so I'm not able to comment on it.

Question: Datuk Sri, to what extent do you think that the new political landscape in Malaysia, looking at with the possibility of a change in leadership, will have an effect on the bilateral relations with Singapore?

Minister Rais Yatim: We are not talking at any length on change of leadership at all. What we are anticipating is the gallop for the future has to be met with the commensurate political fervour. Therefore, the Barisan Nasional would have to look at its homework and pull the thrust or push the thrust for a scenario where we could perform better for the rakyat, for the people. The question of change of leadership is not in the agenda of formality at all. These are what we call political airings or political elements in the fort of certain sectors in the party as well as outside the party, more so within the opposition. The litmus test will be in the general assembly which would be held in December and I'm most confident that Datuk Seri Abdullah will be the winning element for us all, and the Barisan will continue to be a strong and prospective true government for Malaysia. I would like to say this when the PAS government in Kelantan won only by one seat, no one was making too much of a fuss but the Barisan Nasional in KL, they won handsomely, only the two-third is missing so we will charge ahead with our responsibilities.

Question: So relationship with Singapore will be status quo?

Minister Rais Yatim: It will be even better as I have said, status quo means just as it was. It should be one grade up and we will do this as a fervour as a push.

Minister Yeo: I second that.

Minister Rais Yatim: Thank you so much.

Question: Adakah pelan peralihan kuasa yang dibincangkan pada masa sekarang akan memberi kesan faktor-faktor utama kepada perhimpunan Agung Umno Disember ini?

Minister Rais Yatim: Ada dua pihak yang berkata bahawa peralihan kuasa itu penting dibincang. Sebenarnya, perkara ini belum lagi dibuat dalam apa bentuk jua pun. Sementara itu, perlu kita tegaskan keputusan yang muktamad adalah dibuat oleh majlis tertinggi, parti berkenaan iaitu Umno; dan kemudiannya disusul dengan perhimpunan Agung. Buat masa ini, yang penting ialah tidak menyalahkan sesiapa tetapi membuat kerja dan tugasan seperti yang dilunaskan selepas pilihan raya.

Question: Datuk Seri, jika saya boleh tanya satu soalan dalam bahasa Malaysia, Datuk Seri mengenai harapan Datuk Seri sebagai Menteri Luar Malaysia yang baru. Apakah harapan Datuk Seri khususnya tentang hubungan dua hala antara Singapura dan Malaysia?

Minister Rais Yatim: Seperti yang dihuraikan sebentar tadi, sekiranya hubungan antara Malaysia dan Singapura tidak berada di tahap yang tertinggi harmonisnya, maka kita tidak boleh menganggap kita berada dalam satu masyarakat ASEAN yang jujur tetapi bagi kami di Malaysia, melihat Singapura itu sebagai rakan dan juga sebagai jiran yang khusus mempunyai beberapa ciri keistimewaan, justeru lantas kita katakan bahawa ada empat negara yang harus dianggap penting sekali dalam satu kategori yang khusus; Singapura, Indonesia, Brunei dan Thailand. Sebab-sebabnya ialah bukan saja berasas kepada perdagangan seperti yang saya katakan secara mengambil perhatian sebentar tadi, ia juga sebagai satu tarikan sosial kebudayaan sejarah dan kita harus wujud buat masa hadapan sebagai satu kumpulan yang mempunyai daya kasih antara satu dengan lain dan bukan semata-mata di atas tuntutan politik tetapi 'survival' kita di dalam ASEAN dan juga 'survival' kita dalam keluarga antarabangsa.

Minister Yeo: If I can add to that, we don't quite know how the global economy will be affected by the downturn in the US, we are bound to face some effects. I think in China and India, they will try to increase domestic demands, they have the need, they have the resources and ASEAN should work together to see how we can get our economies also revved up and certainly between Malaysia and Singapore as Datuk Seri had just said, we are such close partners. Singapore is Malaysia's number two trading partner, Malaysia is Singapore's number one trading partner and we are an important source of tourists for each other so we can think of new ways to energise each other's economies that will be to the mutual benefits of our people and that is the surest basis of a good long term bilateral relationship. And opportunities are right before us, so all we need is to improve the connectivity, reduce the friction, have better cooperation and we can immediately derive quick benefits and this is what Minister and I have pledged to do together.

Minister Rais Yatim: Thank you.

Minister Yeo: Thank you. Terima Kasih.

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