Bilateral talks with Singapore to proceed, says Malaysia

Both sides will discuss airspace issues in 'coming weeks', and maritime issues on Jan 28

A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel (far right) patrolling the waters off Tuas on Dec 6, 2018.
A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel (far right) patrolling the waters off Tuas on Dec 6, 2018.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Singapore and Malaysia will proceed with scheduled meetings to "discuss the way forward" on both airspace and maritime issues, Malaysia's Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement yesterday.

Malaysia said their foreign ministers met at an Asean retreat in Chiang Mai on Thursday and Friday, as part of its "continuing efforts... to pursue diplomatic solutions to bilateral issues with its closest neighbour Singapore, in a peaceful and constructive manner, on the basis of equality and mutual respect".

Although the Malaysian Foreign Ministry did not give an exact date, its statement said both countries' transport ministers will meet "in the coming weeks" to discuss airspace-related issues, including the Instrument Landing System and approach procedures for Seletar Airport. On Jan 28, top Foreign Ministry officials will also discuss and find solutions to Malaysia-Singapore maritime issues "as well as the legal and operational matters in order to de-escalate the situation on the ground, and provide a basis for further discussions and negotiations".

"Despite recent incidents that seemed to undermine ongoing diplomatic efforts, Dato Saifuddin Abdullah received a letter with positive undertones from Dr Vivian Balakrishnan," the Malaysian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It was referring to Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian's provocative visit on Jan 9 to waters off Tuas, which resulted in the postponement of an annual bilateral ministerial meeting.

This statement from Kuala Lumpur follows up on the two foreign ministers' agreement on Jan 8 - the day before Datuk Osman's action - to establish a working group on both disputes.

On Thursday, Datuk Osman claimed he had the "unofficial blessing" of Foreign Minister Saifuddin to board a Malaysian Marine Department vessel anchored off Tuas, in what Malaysia maintains is its territory under Johor Baru port. Singapore has consistently treated the area as part of its territorial waters.

But the Foreign Ministry on Friday denied approving his trip, saying that "upon learning of the planned visit from a Malaysian enforcement agency on the morning of 9 January itself", it "immediately and repeatedly contacted the chief minister's office and conveyed a message not to proceed with the visit".


Mr Osman's action resulted in the postponement of the Jan 14 meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia, as Singapore said the intrusion made the bilateral talks "untenable". The chief minister also sits on the panel.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Friday also confirmed that "the Menteri Besar went without our permission", adding that "he thought it was Johor waters, that's why he went there".

Dr Mahathir described Singapore's reaction as quite severe, "as if you are going to war".

"I mean he is going to go in a ship into neutral water," he said.

"It is not Singapore water either, it is international water and the Menteri Besar can go into international water without Singapore sending warships to chase him away," he said in reply to a question during a dialogue at the prestigious Oxford Union in Britain.

Malaysia had, on Oct 25, unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits "into what are indisputably Singapore territorial waters", Dr Balakrishnan told Parliament last Monday.

The extension, he said, goes beyond even the territorial sea claims in Malaysia's 1979 map, which Singapore has rejected consistently.

He also highlighted how Singapore has long exercised sovereignty and patrolled the disputed waters without any protest from Malaysia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 20, 2019, with the headline 'Bilateral talks with S'pore to proceed, says Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe