Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Durian diplomacy

As expected, Malaysia and Singapore didn't resolve any outstanding bilateral problems during the first-ever retreat of the countries' leaders earlier this week.

Instead, the two leaders -- Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (left in The Straits Times pix) and Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong -- held long four-eye chats on a wide range of issues that were not fully disclosed to the public.

They had meals, rode in a buggy together and shared durians, leading Badawi to quip they were enjoying durian diplomacy!

What eventually emerged was their agreement to set up a joint ministerial committee to discuss issues related to Singapore's involvement in the Iskandar Development Region in southern Johor. According to media reports on both sides of the causeway, among the issues that will be discussed is a smart-card access system that will cut down on immigration clearance time when travelling to the IDR. Another issue is how Singapore's expertise in cleaning up rivers can be used in Johor.

That was probably the strongest news point as the two governments didn't make any headway on the bilateral front, at least not publicly.

According to The Star, Hsien Loong hinted that outstanding bilateral issues with Malaysia will be resolved through international arbitration.

Maybe, but he may have also meant that the two governments will seek an international arbiter should current efforts fail to resolve all the issues after a certain time. It's definitely unclear at this juncture if the two governments will go straight to the international court to help unwind all the long outstanding problems. It will seem a bit odd if the two governments decided to go to court immediately over the old bilateral issues after such a cordial public meeting, infused with durian diplomacy.

What is clear is that they will remain thorny problems for some time (pun intended!).

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