GRIPPED by a severe economic recession, mortified by a bungled opening of the new international airport, confronted by mounting anger over water shortages in the capital, and facing deep divisions in the ruling party, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, badly needs an issue to unite the nation.
Fortunately for him, the issue lies close at hand and can always be relied upon to stir passion in Malaysia. That issue is Singapore.
The island state which sits just below the southern tip of Malaysia is a constant source of aggravation to Malaysians of all political persuasions. Once part of a federation with Malaysia, tiny Singapore and its leaders are seen as overbearing, over-confident and, well, over there.
Disputes with Singapore have all the passion of old family quarrels which never quite end and provoke harsh words which are sometimes regretted at a later date. This time, the row seems so trivial it is hard for outsiders to understand how it is provoking quite so much heat.
Without Malaysia's agreement, Singapore has moved its customs and immigration post for the railway connecting the two countries from the heart of Singapore city to a new position close to the border. Malaysia, which operates the railway and owns the land it is built on, has kept its officials where they are, and is now accusing the Singaporeans of being "arrogant and insensitive" for making the move unilaterally.
Last week, the abrasive Dr Mahathir joined in the quarrel. "Malaysia's nature is to be good to all ... but don't take for granted our good nature," he told a rally in the border town of Johor Baru. The crowd responded eagerly with cries of, "Cut, cut, cut," meaning they wanted Malaysia to cut off the water supplies on which Singapore is totally dependent for its survival. The city state also relies on Malaysian food and workers.
Singapore's foreign ministry has played down the affair, but claimed that Malaysia was inclined to heap blame on its neighbour, saying: "We have lived with this for many years."
Just over a year ago, another dispute soured relations. Singapore's elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, described the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor as a place "notorious" for "muggings, shootings and car-jackings", which prompted angry protests and calls in Malaysia for the freezing of bilateral relations. The former premier, who still wields great influence within the Singaporean government, was forced into a rare apology.
The history of bad feeling between the two countries goes back more than three decades, when Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian federation in1965, after less than two years of membership. The root of the problem was that Singapore, with its majority Chinese population, was opposed to special privileges accorded to the Muslim Malay majority on the peninsula. The ethnic tension persists to this day.
For Dr Mahathir, whose relations with Mr Lee have never been good, the latest diplomatic stand-off could be a chance to rekindle domestic support eroded by Asia's economic crisis. His standing as the architect of Malaysia's economic successes of the past two decades has taken a beating in the past year, while his younger, more liberal deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, is becoming impatient to succeed him.
And the railway? It is the least favoured form of transport between Malaysia and Singapore, but in times like these, with the government hard- pressed, it has its uses.
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