Malaysia says discussions with Singapore on air and sea disputes on track after foreign ministers meet

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

KUALA LUMPUR - 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 on Saturday (Jan 19).

Foreign ministers of the two neighbours had met at an Asean retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand, 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", the statement said.

It added: "Despite recent incidents that seemed to undermine ongoing diplomatic efforts, Dato' Saifuddin Abdullah received a letter with positive undertones from Dr Vivian Balakrishnan."

It was referring to Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian's provocative visit last week to waters off Tuas which resulted in the postponement of an annual bilateral ministerial meeting.

Although it did not specify an exact date, the statement said both transport ministers will meet "in the coming weeks" to "discuss the way forward on airspace related issues between both countries including the Instrument Landing System (ILS) and ILS Approach Procedures for Seletar Airport, Singapore".

The top officials of both foreign ministries will also "discuss and find solutions to Malaysia-Singapore maritime issues" on Jan 28, "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".

This follows up on Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Saifuddin's agreement on Jan 8 - the day before Datuk Osman's controversial visit to waters off Tuas - to establish a working group on both disputes.

 
 
 

On Thursday, Mr Osman was reported as saying that he had the "unofficial blessing" of Mr Saifuddin to board a Malaysian 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 Malaysia's Foreign Ministry denied this on Friday, 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 actions resulted in the postponement of the Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia meeting set for Monday, as Singapore said the intrusion made the bilateral talks "untenable". Mr Osman also sits on the panel.

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

Dr Mahathir described Singapore’s reaction to the chief minister's actions 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 session 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.