Malaysia is threatening war in an island row

Malaysia's leadership greeted the New Year with two statements of aggression toward its neighbours.

One threatened to go to war with its closest neighbour Singapore over an island dispute. The other offered a 'bloody nose' to countries such as Australia for its 'white-man sheriff' attitude.

The comments appear to reflect Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's desire to stamp his mark domestically on what he claims will be his last year in power.

The Bernama news agency reported Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar demanding, under threat of war, that Singapore learn to compromise over the disputed island of Batu Puteh, which is also known as Pedra Branca.

'Singapore has two choices. If it refuses to compromise . . . go to war,' Mr Syed Hamid said on Tuesday.

He accused Singapore of caring only about its economy, claiming that Malaysia was generally more intent on being a good neighbour who believes war is not the answer.

Singapore maintains the disputed island and has built some additional structures on it.

Malaysian journalists who recently approached the island were turned back by Singaporean marine police.

Singapore's claim is based primarily on an 1824 Anglo-Dutch treaty and the fact that the authorities in Singapore have maintained a lighthouse on the rock since 1851.

Malaysia argues that it has exercised sovereignty over Batu Puteh since the foundation of the Johore-Riau-Lingga sultanate in the early 16th century.

Last month, Malaysia won a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague over a territorial dispute with Indonesia on the islands of Sipadan and Ligatan. But the basis on which the court ruled in its favour - actual administration of the islands rather than colonial treaties - could be used against Malaysia in the dispute with Singapore.

Both Singapore and Malaysia agree their dispute should also be settled in The Hague.

Malaysian has often threatened to go to war with Singapore over disputes such as water supply, airspace and border crossings.

Singapore has refused to comment on the threats regarding sovereignty of the island, merely repeating its desire to see the issue solved in court.

'Singapore has consistently maintained that Malaysia's claim to Pedra Branca should be resolved by reference to the International Court of Justice,' Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on December 20.

'Singapore and Malaysia agreed on the procedure to do this in April 1998, and also agreed on the text of a draft special agreement. The next step is to fix a date for both sides to sign and ratify this special agreement,' the ministry said.

When asked how important the disputed island was to Malaysia, Dr Mahathir said: 'We don't take into consideration whether there are sources of oil. Our country is our country . . . we do not allow people to take any part of our country.'

Dr Mahathir also adopted an aggressive tone in his New Year's address in which he criticised the oppression of 'black' countries by 'white' ones.

Dr Mahathir referred to Australian Prime Minister John Howard's comments about his desire to launch pre-emptive strikes against any neighbour it believes is harbouring terrorists.

'We promise that if anyone violates our freedom with pre-emptive action or forward defence, they will get what the Westerners call a bloody nose,' he said.

Dr Mahathir, who has led Malaysia for 21 years, said his nation did not win independence just so that foreigners could come and do whatever they want.

Although Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have also criticised Mr Howard's attempt to justify pre-emptive strikes in the name of anti-terrorism, Dr Mahathir's criticism has been particularly scathing.

He said Malaysia would consider any incursion as an act of war.

He warned Mr Howard to stop behaving like a 'white-man sheriff in some black country'.