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SINGAPORE — This year promises to usher in a new entente between Malaysia and Singapore, leading to better Asian regional cooperation and development. Singapore-Malaysian bilateral relations hit a new high after Singapore Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong made a one-day working visit to Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 13 to meet Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. Both sides now expect bilateral negotiations to go forward after being stalled for two years.

There were three other bilateral rendezvous between Malaysia and Singapore that week:

A Malaysia-Singapore Forum (primarily business people from both sides) was held in Singapore on Dec. 13. Malaysian dignitaries included Datuk Mustapha Mohamed, minister in the prime minister’s office (and director general of the National Economic Action Council); Hishamuddin Hussein, education minister; and the chief ministers of Malaysian states Melaka, Penang and Perak. Significantly, Hishamuddin and Singapore Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam decided to have Singaporean and Malaysian schools organize joint activities to encourage bonding by youths.

Singapore Communications Minister Lee Boon Yang visited Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 14 and agreed with Malaysian Information Minister Kadir Sheik Fadzir that the television networks of both countries, Mediacorp and Radio Television Malaysia, would coproduce a drama series in the Malay and Mandarin languages. The ministers also sought to revive the variety program “Rampai Sari” in Singapore after a seven-year suspension.

The KL-Singapore Business Council met in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 16 to devise strategies to increase business in third countries like China and India as part of its efforts to improve cooperation toward industrial expansion and modernization and to generate more cross-border investments.

At the Dec. 13 political summit in Kuala Lumpur, key decisions were taken to help kick-start bilateral negotiations early this year. Goh (designated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in September as Singapore’s chief representative and negotiator with Malaysia) will meet Badawi and Razak again in two months, presumably right after Chinese New Year (Feb. 9).

This cluster of cooperation activities is in line with two principles agreed upon between Goh and Badawi for going forward: consideration of mutual benefits in proposals so that neither side is disadvantaged and agreement to not let “future relations be held hostage by past issues.”

Five serious issues of disagreement between Malaysia and Singapore were clearly laid out for negotiation:

(1) Johor’s supply of water to Singapore. Price is the main issue, although Singapore is aiming for future water self-sufficiency and will not seek to renew its water agreement when it expires in 2011.

(2) Points of agreement concerning the development of Malaysian Railway land in Singapore after the railway station, customs, immigration and quarantine services are relocated from Keppel Road to Bukit Timah.

(3) Use of Malaysian airspace by Singapore’s air force.

(4) Early withdrawal of Central Provident Fund funds from Peninsular Malaysia by pre-retirement Malaysians who no longer work in Singapore.

(5) Malaysia’s proposal to replace the “causeway” with a bridge.

In addition to these thorny issues, there is Malaysia’s claim to Pedra Blanca Island (or Pulau Batu Puteh), now before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and Malaysia’s objections to Singapore’s land-reclamation works, now before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany. A fair resolution of these “sovereign” issues will help ameliorate the bilateral climate.

Other contentious issues abound that cannot be resolved quickly due to their complexity. A successful entente between the two most developed economies of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is crucial.

Singapore and Malaysia can lead the charge toward East Asian integration at the East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur in November, especially with their businesses now making joint initiatives to tap the Chinese and Indian markets.

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