Malaysia has denied approving last week's visit by the Johor Menteri Besar to a government vessel in waters that it is claiming from Singapore.
The Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry said yesterday 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".
"The ministry was concerned that such a visit would be counterproductive after the positive and constructive outcome of the bilateral meetings between the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Minister of Singapore just the day before," the statement said.
This confirms The Straits Times report last Saturday that Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian had insisted on boarding the Marine Department ship anchored off Tuas despite being instructed not to proceed.
On Thursday, Datuk Osman was reported as saying that he had the "unofficial blessing" of Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah to visit what Malaysia maintains is its territory under Johor Baru port.
"They did not stop me at all from visiting the area," he said.
Singapore has consistently treated the area as part of its territorial waters.
Malaysia's Foreign Ministry also said in its statement that, when contacted, Mr Osman was already on board a vessel and heading towards the Johor Baru port.
An annual bilateral meeting between Singapore and Malaysia set for the following Monday was postponed after Mr Osman's action, which Singapore called an intrusion into its waters.
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last Saturday that Mr Osman's presence on a Malaysian vessel in Singapore's territory on Jan 9 had rendered the 14th Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia (JMCIM) "untenable". Mr Osman also sits on the panel.
With the bilateral meeting postponed, Malaysia's co-chair of the JMCIM, Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, instead met Singaporean leaders without Mr Osman on Sunday and Monday.
Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong all spoke positively on improving bilateral ties after their meetings with Datuk Seri Azmin, pointing out the mutual benefit of cooperation despite several ongoing disputes between the two neighbours.
Both countries' foreign ministries had agreed on Jan 8 - the day before Mr Osman's con-troversial visit to the Malaysian vessel - to establish a working group on their overlapping claims on the waters off Tuas and the use of airspace over Pasir Gudang, Johor, near Singapore's Seletar Airport.
"Regardless of these recent developments, the ministry wishes to concentrate its efforts on the working group and looks forward to hosting the first meeting at the end of this month, a testament of its commitment to strengthen bilateral relations with Singapore based on equality and mutual respect," Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said in its statement yesterday.