Malaysia plans 'ship-to-ship hub' in Johor Baru port waters, raising hackles in Johor

A view of the Johor Baru port, as seen from Tuas on Dec 5, 2018.
A view of the Johor Baru port, as seen from Tuas on Dec 5, 2018.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia plans to develop what it bills as the world's largest ship-to-ship transfer hub in the waters of Johor Baru port, with the project attracting the attention of the Johor Crown Prince on Monday (April 1).

A signing ceremony for the project is expected to be held on Tuesday (April 2) in Putrajaya, as seen by a link to the event's invitation card.

The link was posted on the Facebook page of Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim.

According to the invitation, the ceremony will be attended by, among others, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and Transport Minister Anthony Loke.

The invitation card says the event involves the signing ceremony "For The Development of World's Largest Ship-To-Ship Hub in Johor Baru Port Waters".

Mr Loke on Monday (April 1) indirectly confirmed Tuesday's signing ceremony when he avoided answering a media query about the plan.

"You can ask the question tomorrow (Tuesday). The PM will be attending the event," Mr Loke told reporters in the lobby of Parliament, as reported by Malaysiakini.

The signing ceremony will involve Malaysian company KA Petra and Hong Kong-based port operator Hutchison Port Holdings.

KA Petra said on its website that it offers myriad services including ship-to-ship transfer. It explains the service as "cargo transfer operations between 2 seagoing vessels, either while stationary or underway".

The Crown Prince's Facebook post included the full 10-paragraph statement by a Johor organisation called Gerakan Muafakat Johor (Johor Consensus Movement) that carried the headline "Putrajaya cronies bulldoze Johor's jurisdiction".

Gerakan Muafakat Johor, claiming to represent Johoreans, in its Facebook post claimed the ship-to-ship project was planned without the knowledge of the Johor state government.

"Our investigations found that the joint venture received special treatment from federal authorities because it is believed to include cronies of select leaders in Putrajaya," the group said, referring to Malaysia's administrative capital.

The group also accused the federal government led by Tun Dr Mahathir, who has had several sharp exchanges with the Crown Prince over issues concerning Johor, of  "an economic attack" on Johor by cutting off local businessmen and replacing them with "their own cronies".

It is not known how Malaysia will use the Johor Baru port waters for the ship-to-ship transfers, and which parts of the Strait of Johor would be utilised. 

Singapore and Malaysia had been locked in a maritime dispute in the Strait of Johor, sparked by Malaysia's unilateral decision to extend the Johor Baru port limits last Oct 25 into Singapore waters off Tuas.

Later, there were intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore waters.

On Dec 6 last year, Singapore also extended its port limits to the full extent of its territorial waters.

The tense stand-off saw a promised turnaround in March, when both countries agreed to jointly suspend their overlapping port claims as a step to begin talks to delimit the maritime boundary in the area.

But Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Monday that two Malaysian government vessels remain anchored in Singapore territorial waters off Tuas, a fortnight after Singapore and Putrajaya jointly agreed to suspend the overlapping port claims. 

Correction note: The article has been edited for accuracy.