Why should Singapore keep calm if provocations continue?

Some Singaporeans attribute the Malaysian provocations to an attempt to divert attention away from difficult domestic issues.
Some Singaporeans attribute the Malaysian provocations to an attempt to divert attention away from difficult domestic issues.PHOTO: ST FILE

Singaporeans who insist on keeping calm and carrying on negotiations with Malaysia in respect of its vessels anchored off Tuas must be reminded that this is no ordinary dispute (Keep calm and carry on negotiating, by Dr Yik Keng Yeong; Jan 16).

It is an occupation of our territory by a foreign country.

It is arguably the most blatant violation of our sovereignty since the commander of the 4th Malaysian Infantry Brigade, still in Singapore shortly after our independence, insisted on escorting founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to the opening of the first independent Singapore Parliament in December 1965.

We did not, as some countries would, repel the Malaysian vessels from our waters.

We remained calm and sought negotiation with Malaysia, all the while tolerating the presence of the vessels in our backyard.

But for how long should this continue? Three months? Six months?

What if "bilateral consultations in good faith, third-party refereeing or adjudication by internationally-sanctified bodies" run into years?

Even after this prolonged period of occupation, I am not advocating repulsion of the Malaysian vessels.

I suggested anchoring our vessels in their waters as a signal to them as well as our other neighbours that negotiations cannot happen in good faith when they continue to occupy our territory.

Whether this is a "primal reflexive response" or "mediaeval mindset", I leave to fellow Singaporeans to judge.

Some Singaporeans attribute the Malaysian provocations to an attempt to divert attention away from difficult domestic issues.

That may or may not be true.

But even if it is true, how is it our responsibility to empathise with them and therefore not react to their occupation of our territory?

Singaporeans must also bear in mind that the manner in which we respond to this dispute is watched not just by the Malaysians.

By not differentiating civility from weakness, we risk giving our other neighbours the wrong idea. That would be dangerous indeed.

Cheng Shoong Tat

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2019, with the headline 'Why should S'pore keep calm if provocations continue?'. Print Edition | Subscribe