Singapore swaps new insults with its neighbour

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The Straits of Johor, which divide Singapore and Malaysia, are no more than a few hundred yards across at their narrowest point, but between the two countries there exists an ocean of contrasts.

Singapore is a compact island city, Malaysia a sprawling federation of scattered states. The former has a majority Chinese population, while the latter is predominantly Malay. What is more, Singaporeans pee in lifts - something which Malaysians never do.

This, at least, was the message delivered last month by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, at a speech outlining his hopes for the country in the 21st century. He said Malaysians have some retrograde habits, such as hanging out their underwear in public.

"But we are more civilised than some people in Singapore," Dr Mahathir pointed out. "There, people urinate in lifts, so the authorities have placed sensors to detect ammonia to catch the culprits. But we don't do it here."

His remarks were only the most hilarious in an increasingly bizarre verbal battle being fought across the Johor Straits. The relationship between Singapore and Malaysia, two of Asia's most energetic and fast-growing countries, has long been touchy but, in the past few weeks, it has descended to unprecedented levels of pettiness and triviality.

The trouble began in March after an uncharacteristic faux pas by Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, and now its formidable "Senior Minister". Along with several of his ministers, Mr Lee is pursuing a libel case against an opposition candidate, Tang Liang Hong, who crossed the Straits of Johor for Malaysia shortly after his defeat in the January general elections.

Mr Tang claimed that his life was in danger in Singapore, a claim which was scornfully denounced by the Senior Minister. "If there is anywhere where people can do him harm," said Mr Lee, in a written affidavit, "that is the place." He said Mr Tang's refuge, the city of Johor Baru, is "notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings".

In Malaysia, enraged newspaper columnists suggested cutting off the fresh water supplies which are piped across the Straits. Dr Mahathir pronounced himself "reasonably angry". Protesters paraded outside the Singaporean High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, denouncing Mr Lee. His remarks were intended only to have been read by lawyers, but Mr Lee found himself in the humiliating position of apologising for them and asking for them to be deleted from the official record. But the squabble flared up again when the Singaporean Straits Times ran a long and detailed article about crime in Johor Baru.

Malaysian journalists accused Mr Lee of using the paper to propagate his chauvinist opinions, despite the pretence of his apology. "The leaders of Singapore [are like] the murai bird which talks incessantly but whose feathers are covered in faeces," wrote a columnist in the Weekly Malaysia. "Their mouths smell sweet, but their tail-ends smell sour."

However infantile, the quarrel is an expression of genuine and deep-rooted tensions between the two states which date back more than 30 years. In 1965, fears of racial tension between Chinese and Malays caused Singapore to be kicked out of the Malaysian Federation. Since then the countries have enjoyed very different fortunes.

Singapore is a model of neatness and prosperity, if a rather soulless one - carefully driven cars circulate obediently around shiny modern high- rises and litter-free parks. Cross the causeway over the Straits, and this rather anxious order dissolves in a mess of old plaster buildings, street markets and suicidal motorcyclists. Johor is booming in its own way, but it is crumblier, grimier, and more unpredictable than Singapore.

That Singaporeans are envied by Malaysians is no wonder. They are six times richer than their neighbours, with an average GNP of $24,000 (pounds 15,00) per person, compared to $4,000 in Malaysia. Levels of literacy and life expectancy are higher, infrastructure and housing standards are better and, if Malaysians are less inclined to pee in lifts, that is because many more of their apartment blocks have only flights of stairs.