SINGAPORE - Malaysia must get its ships to leave Singapore territorial waters immediately, and return to the pre-Oct 25 status quo, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said on Saturday (Dec 8), reiterating the Singapore Government's position on the bilateral dispute.
Singapore welcomes talks and hopes for a "swift and amicable resolution" of these issues, but is prepared to settle the matter via an "appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure", he added.
These were the key points in a diplomatic note sent by Singapore to Malaysia on Saturday morning, in response to a note from Malaysia on Friday calling on both sides to not send assets to the disputed area which Malaysia claimed for the first time on Oct 25.
The note from Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was received on Saturday by Malaysia's Acting High Commissioner to Singapore Nur Eliza Jemal Zainal.
On Friday, Malaysia had proposed to Singapore, through the Singapore High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, for both countries to cease and desist from sending assets into the disputed area effective on Saturday, pending discussions on outstanding maritime boundary issues.
Singapore's MFA issued a statement on Friday night in response to media queries, saying the Republic did not agree with the proposal for both countries to cease and desist from sending assets into the disputed area. It also called on Malaysian government vessels to leave the area west of Tuas.
Explaining the Government's latest response, Mr Chan, speaking to reporters at Buona Vista Community Club, said Malaysia's proposal "cannot be right".
He said that the Singapore Navy and the Police Coast Guard have been patrolling the waters off Tuas, which Malaysia now claims, for decades before Kuala Lumpur published a government gazette notice on Oct 25 this year that claimed even more territory at sea than another map it published in 1979.
Singapore has never accepted that 1979 map, which depicted the limits of the territorial waters Malaysia claims, including in areas in the eastern and western approaches to Singapore. This was the same map Malaysia used when claiming Pedra Branca as its own. Malaysia also followed that map when it announced port limits for Johor Baru port in 1999 that border on the current area it now claims, and had regarded that area as Singapore waters.
Mr Chan, who was Chief of Army before he joined politics in 2011, said: "Now, they are sending Malaysian government vessels into the area, inconsistent with innocent passage, conducting unlawful and unauthorised activities under international law, refusing to leave.
"Then (they are) suggesting that Singapore vessels leave the area for talks to happen. That's not right. That cannot be right. Even the layman can see that this cannot be right.
"You made a claim. You send forces in. You ask Singapore to leave as conditions to start talks? How can this be?"
Describing the situation on the ground as "tense", Mr Chan said that with ships being in close proximity to each other - some of them armed - the risk of escalation "cannot be underestimated".
"Accidents can happen. We should all revert to the pre-Oct 25 status quo ante for things to calm down... We have to be sensible about this."
On Thursday, Singapore expanded its own port limits, following the Malaysian government gazette notification issued on Oct 25 this year which would extend Johor Baru port limits into Singapore's territorial waters.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan this week called on Malaysian government vessels to "cease their intrusions and return to the status quo before Oct 25, 2018", adding that there had been 14 intrusions into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas from Nov 24 to Dec 5.
Speaking on this bilateral dispute over territorial waters for the first time, Mr Chan said that he did not wish to speculate on Malaysia's domestic and bilateral considerations, when asked what triggered this episode.
But he drew parallels with the Pedra Branca incident in 1979, when the Malaysians published a new map, unilaterally claiming Pedra Branca and the waters off Tuas - with "no consultation, no discussion" - after Singapore had been administering the island for more than 100 years.
"That set off a dispute that lasted decades. Military forces were deployed, facing off each other at sea."
"We went to the International Court of Justice and even then, we did not fully settle the issue. Even as we speak today, we are still managing the issue. It has become a blemish in our bilateral ties."
"Fast forward to 2018. Just when we are working on a fresh start with the new Malaysian government, we find the pattern repeated," he added.
On how Singapore and Malaysia can move forward, Mr Chan said: "I think Malaysians and Malaysia's government have a choice.
"Do we want to move forward constructively to prosper thy neighbour, or do we want to colour yet another new generation with beggar thy neighbour policies?"
He said he has met various younger Malaysian leaders since May, and they have expressed the hope that they want to work closer together.
"We all agreed that the competition is not so much between Malaysia and Singapore, as between us and the rest of the world."
"I hope their actions will match their words. I hope they still believe in this - working together. If so, then we don't have to expend our energies managing these unnecessary, unhelpful and unproductive activities."