Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew, the man who staked his reputation on never backing down, yesterday issued an apology to head off a damaging row with neighbouring Malaysia. Mr Lee, the island republic's Senior Minister, said sorry 'to the Government and people of Malaysia' for remarks in an affidavit that its state of Johore was 'notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings'. Malaysia's Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had earlier called the remarks a serious matter and the youth wing of his ruling party had threatened to sue Mr Lee. But Mr Lee's press secretary said he had not visited Johore since 1990 and his remarks were based on press reports. 'The Senior Minister had no intention to cause offence and apologises unreservedly.' Mr Lee has earned a reputation as an aggressive leader, more predisposed to a fight than withdrawing when challenged. But on Wednesday, the Malaysian Government insisted on a retraction and apology, with Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi describing Mr Lee's comments as callous and hostile. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim said he was 'appalled' by the allegations. Education Minister Najib Tun Razak said 'only an arrogant leader' would come out with 'such an irresponsible statement'. In Johore yesterday, Dr Mahathir said Singapore should understand the feelings of the Malaysian people. He said Mr Lee's apology was a positive step towards improving relations, adding: 'I always view things positively, unless people view me negatively.' Dr Mahathir was 'neither happy nor sad' but merely wanted to conclude the unhappy episode. He had been met at Johore Baru airport by about 300 members of his United Malays National Organisation's youth wing brandishing placards calling 73-year-old Mr Lee senile. Others outside the Singapore Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had banners describing Mr Lee as crazy and rude. The affidavit was filed in connection with a defamation suit against Tang Liang Hong, an unsuccessful opposition candidate in Singapore's January general election. In it, Mr Lee, the island's prime minister from 1959 to 1990, said he was baffled by a report that Mr Tang left for Johore because he feared for his safety. Mr Tang, 61, who lost 12 defamation suits brought against him by Singapore's leaders, said in Johore he wanted to go home but was afraid he would be imprisoned.