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LEAD: Malaysia's Abdullah cool to Lee Kuan Yew's apology.

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia, Oct. 3 Kyodo

(EDS: UPDATING, CHANGING DATELINE)

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Tuesday poured cold water on Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew's apology for any ''discomfort'' caused by his recent remarks about that ethnic minority Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia are ''systematically marginalized.''

''I understand the content. I have taken note of it. But let me said this, that statement that Lee Kuan Yew made in Singapore is uncalled for and not appreciated,'' Abdullah told reporters when asked to comment a letter of apology that Lee sent to him.

''I certainly do not agree and I certainly reject the premise upon which he made the statement in Singapore,'' Abdullah said.

Lee, 83, who stepped down as Singapore's first prime minister in 1990 but still holds the powerful position of ''minister mentor'' in his son Hsieng Loong's Cabinet, told Abdullah in his letter, ''I am sorry that what I said has caused you a great deal of discomfort.''

''After a decade of troubled relations with your predecessor, it is the last thing I wanted,'' he said, alluding to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

A copy of Lee's letter was released to the press by Lee's office late Monday.

But Lee did not retract the remarks, which he made Sept. 15 at a forum held on the sidelines of the annul meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Lee sparked outrage in both Malaysia and Indonesia by saying then that Singapore's two neighbors ''have problems with the Chinese. They are successful, they are hardworking, and therefore, they are systematically marginalized.''

In Malaysia, ethnic Chinese represent some 25 percent of the 26 million population. While they lack political voice, they control a large part of the economy. They make up only 3 percent of Indonesia's 220 million population but are economically powerful there too.

Lee also told the forum that Malaysia and Indonesia ''want Singapore, to put it simply, to be like their Chinese -- compliant.''

Both countries subsequently summoned Singapore's ambassadors in their capitals for an explanation of Lee's remarks, while Abdullah wrote to the city-state's founding father demanding an apology and an explanation.

In Lee's letter to Abdullah, he sought to defend his remarks by saying, ''I have not said anything more than what I have said many times before. In fact, I have said less than what I had written in my memoirs published in 1998.''

''I was explaining to a liberal audience of Westerners who wanted to see a stronger opposition in Singapore why Singapore needs a strong majority government, not a weak coalition that will hamper us in defending our national interests,'' he said.

''Singapore needs a strong government to maintain good relations with Indonesia and Malaysia and to interact with Indonesian and Malaysian politicians who consider Singapore to be Chinese and expect Singapore to be 'sensitive' and comply with their requests.''

Although Singapore has close ties with Malaysia, race remains a sensitive issue in both countries and there is an undercurrent of tension in their bilateral relations, marked by suspicions, rivalry and unresolved bilateral disputes.

Lee noted that since Abdullah took over from Mahathir as prime minister and leader of the ruling United Malays National Organization in 2003, relations between the two neighbors have improved.

During his premiership, Lee had a thorny relationship with Mahathir, accusing him of using Singapore's minority ethnic Malays, which make up 14 percent of its predominantly Chinese population of 3.6 million, as a bogey to defend ethnic Malay political supremacy in Malaysia.

''On numerous occasions, UMNO leaders, including Dr. Mahathir and many others, have publicly warned Malaysian Malays that if they ever lose power, they risk the same fate as Malays in Singapore, whom they allege are marginalized and discriminated against,'' Lee said in his letter.

Abdullah, however, stressed that there is no justification for Lee's remarks, which he warned could only exacerbate racial tensions.

''I believe that such a statement cannot contribute to good neighborly relation. It is important to remember that, irrespective of whatever reasons he has said, such statement can incite the feelings of Malaysians,'' he said.

The latest controversy over Lee's remarks has only added to the long list of sore points between Malaysia and Singapore.

Once part of Malaysia, Singapore gained an acrimonious divorce in 1965 over race issues, and ties have never healed since. Race riots between Malays and Chinese occurred in Singapore in the early 1960s.

The two sides often quarrel over issues ranging from Malaysia's obligatory supply of water to Singapore to the relocation of a Malaysian railway line that runs into the heart of the city-state instead of stopping at the border.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Oct 9, 2006
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