Earlier this week, the Malaysian Cabinet reportedly decided to take tough action against Singapore over offending remarks made by Lee Kuan Yew, the island republic's Senior Minister and former Prime Minister. The next day the report was denied, leading, not for the first time, to confusion over what actually happened in the Cabinet. A similar occurrence in Singapore is unimaginable and that, to some extent, explains the most serious quarrel between the island republic and Malaysia since the two countries ceased to be part of the British colonial empire. Singapore is a rigid and regulated state at many levels, especially the higher planes of government, where the approach to decision-making is singularly methodical and meticulous, if not cold and calculating. Meetings between ministers and the media are carefully controlled affairs. Questions must be faxed in advance. Minders warn journalists of no-go areas. The Minister of Information, George Yeo, hosts an annual buffet lunch for the press, at which guests are ushered into his presence in small groups for snatches of casual conversation. For most journalists, it is the one time in the year they get to meet him. In Malaysia, by striking contrast, his counterpart, Mohamed Rahmat, is an accessible minister, who seldom dodges a media question. Malaysian ministers sometimes sound like their counterparts in Singapore - when criticising the Western media, for example - but they are more relaxed and do not have the stamped-from-the-same-mould appearance and attitude of the Singaporeans. Singaporean ministers champion 'Asian values' but the Malaysians are more influenced in every aspect of their daily lives by their centuries-old culture and religion. The different attitudes of the two governments are exemplified in the willingness of Malaysian ministers to be, in the idiom of the trade, 'door-stopped'. This is the journalistic practice of thrusting tape recorders into the faces of prospective interviewees as they arrive at or depart from their offices and official functions. In Singapore you can get arrested for trying to interview someone without authorisation, as an Associated Press correspondent discovered recently. In Malaysia, where even the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is tolerant of the practice, journalists swarm around ministers for quotes after Cabinet meetings. Usually, there is a briefing to provide an official version of events but on Wednesday, with Dr Mahathir and the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Badawi, on a visit to Japan, ministers had the media microphones to themselves. Some might have said what they would have liked the Cabinet to do rather than what it actually did. The next day, the media trumpeted the Cabinet's 'decision' to 'freeze fresh bilateral ties with Singapore'. Then, just a few hours later, acting Foreign Minister Abang Abu Bakar denied any such decision had been taken. Some analysts said the incident reflected a split in the Government over how far Malaysia should go in responding to Mr Lee's unsupported statement that the Malaysian state of Johor was 'notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings'. Whatever the cause, it highlighted the continuing bitterness of many Malaysians over the slight from Singapore. The Senior Minister made his remark in an affidavit filed in connection with a defamation suit against Tang Liang Hong, an unsuccessful opposition candidate in the recent Singapore election. Mr Lee said he was baffled why Mr Tang went to Johor 'of all places' after saying he feared for his safety in Singapore. Mr Lee subsequently apologised and promised to seek the removal of the references to Johor from the affidavit. Malaysia accepted the apology but said in an official note that the 'restoration of the old level of friendship [between Singapore and Malaysia] would take time'. Singapore did not seem to understand the degree of rancour the remarks had caused. Its Foreign Minister, S Jayakumar, expressed surprise at the wording of the Malaysian note, asserting Mr Lee had not made his statement as Senior Minister or on behalf of the Singapore Government. The Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, was only mildly critical of Mr Lee, describing his remarks as 'off-side'. The cold, calculating view from Singapore seemed to be that the remarks were made by Mr Lee to serve a particular purpose and Malaysia should not take them personally. It was just bad luck that instead of lying unnoticed in a court affidavit the remarks had become public property. This reasoning only served to infuriate Malaysians. Information Minister Rahmat said the reactions of Mr Goh and Mr Jayakumar were belittling to Malaysia. Mr Lee has long been regarded with animosity in Malaysia, where he is remembered for political manoeuvres in the 1960s which many Malays believe were aimed at subjecting them to Chinese overlordship. But what rankles most with Malays, who make up more than 60 per cent of the population, is the perception that the rest of the Singapore Government and Mr Goh in particular have not firmly dissociated themselves from Mr Lee's remarks. If Singaporeans are rigid and regulated, Malays hold to rituals of respect and courtesy. Especially important in Islam, which is the religion of virtually all Malays, is the concept of people seeking forgiveness from one another. At the Muslim festival of Hari Raya, Malays traditionally ask forgiveness from their parents and elders. 'This practice is carried into politics and diplomacy,' a veteran Malaysian journalist said. 'In this case, Lee Kuan Yew or Goh Chok Tong should have made a personal telephone call to Dr Mahathir to apologise.' Malaysians, and Malays in particular, are among the world's most friendly people, greeting strangers with a warm smile and offers of help. 'If you return the offer of friendship, it is taken into the heart,' a Malay public relations executive said. 'If you cause the person hurt, it is also taken into the heart.' Repeatedly, during the present row, Malaysians have spoken of the 'hurt' caused by Singapore leaders. For many Malaysians, the hurt is compounded by animosity to Mr Lee and a perception of Singaporean Chinese as arrogant and superior. If Mr Goh and his colleagues do not comprehend the extent of the Malaysian unhappiness and ask forgiveness, relations could take some time to heal.