Singaporeans interviewed yesterday welcomed Malaysia's statement that it would take steps to "de-escalate" the situation on the ground in its ongoing dispute with the Republic. Some political observers, however, pointed out that the presence of Malaysian ships in Singapore's territorial waters was a serious sticking point.
Malaysia said yesterday that it was unable to accede to Singapore's proposal to revert to the status quo before Oct 25, when the Johor Baru port limits were unilaterally extended, encroaching into the Republic's waters.
Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan told The Straits Times: "So long as the Malaysian government vessels remain in our waters, the risk of escalation is real and de-escalation of tensions a pipe dream."
There are still underlying tensions, even though both Singapore and Malaysia have said they would meet in the second week of next month to exchange views on the matter, the experts said.
Dr Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said it is not clear at the moment what Malaysia is seeking to gain from pursuing this issue.
"For Malaysia to antagonise Singapore to this extent, there must be something they want out of the discussions. I don't think it is a simple dispute over a maritime border, or over airspace over Johor," said Dr Tan, referring to Malaysia's recently announced intentions to reclaim the management of the airspace over southern Johor.
Dr Tan also highlighted the current political leadership in Malaysia as another complexity in the issue.
"Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is back to his usual nudging and prodding Singapore at every opportunity he can get," said Dr Tan.
Singaporeans who have been following the developments felt that the situation should be handled sensitively as tensions between the two countries seemed high.
Freelance videographer Syamil Osman, 27, who visits Johor Baru frequently, said the situation was worrying. However, he felt the reactions from Singapore and Malaysia did show that both were open to negotiations, which was a relief.
Management consultant Astrid Lim, 26, said she hoped the countries could come to a consensus and understanding soon.
She said: "I think there are better ways to resolve this issue than to escalate it into a regional concern. Maybe more immediate bilateral meetings to understand the intentions would be suitable, instead of engaging in tit-for-tat moves."
Many Singaporeans, like Mr Ng Cher Pheng, 63, a retired insurance agent, agreed that remaining calm and logical was the right way forward for Singapore.
"(Singapore should) wait and see their next steps. But we should enforce our sovereignty and be firm with our actions," he said.
Referring to yesterday's developments, Mr Ng said Singapore should not be provocative in its actions. "But I think we should still make our presence felt... so that they know we mean what we say."
Singapore's firm stance on the matter was also lauded by some, with Singaporeans like Mr Anselm De Souza, 57, a retired sales director, agreeing with the actions taken. "I see that the Government has taken a strong stand, which is good as it is backing it with facts as well."
While the situation might be a strain on the relationship between both nations, Miss Lim said she hoped both would remember the long historical ties and deal with the matter rationally.
"I think this will eventually subside, given the good logic of our combined leaders and good ties between citizens," she said.
Malaysia's Foreign Ministry yesterday issued a statement on the latest developments in the maritime boundary dispute, arising from Kuala Lumpur extending port limits for the Johor Baru port. Singapore's Foreign Ministry has also issued a statement in response. Both statements are reproduced in full here.
PRESS RELEASE: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, MALAYSIA
Malaysia continues further discussions with Singapore
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs today called the Singaporean High Commissioner to discuss the latest development arising from the Declaration of Alteration of Port Limits for Johore Bahru Port published on 25 October 2018 and the Singapore Port Marine Circular No. 9 of 2018 dated 6 December 2018.
During the discussion, the Ministry welcomed Singapore's continued emphasis on the importance of dialogue, and its willingness to engage with Malaysia in resolving matters amicably, along with its consideration of Malaysia's proposed agenda for the bilateral discussion. Malaysia is also agreeable to Singapore's counter-proposed dates in January 2019.
The Ministry referred to Singapore's Diplomatic Note of 8 December 2018, in which Singapore declined Malaysia's proposal for both countries to mutually cease and desist sending assets into the disputed area effective 0000 hrs on 8 December 2018 with a view of promoting de-escalation of tensions on the ground, pending discussions on outstanding maritime boundary issues. Singapore also called upon Malaysia to return to the status quo prior to 25 October 2018 by immediately withdrawing all Malaysian Government vessels in the area. Both countries acknowledge that any measures taken, would be without prejudice to their own claims.
While the Government of Malaysia is unable to accede to Singapore's counterproposal, Malaysia will take all effective measures to de-escalate the situation on the ground, reaffirming its position to handle the situation in a calm and peaceful manner.
In the meantime, Malaysia reiterates the importance of strong bilateral relations between the two countries, and hope that discussions will commence expeditiously.
10 December 2018
MFA'S PRESS STATEMENT in response to the statement by the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday:
On 25 October 2018, the Malaysian Government published a declaration on the alteration of Johor Bahru Port Limits. Malaysian Government vessels then entered into Singapore Territorial Waters ("STW") off Tuas.
Singapore protested these actions. The Singapore Government made it clear that the Malaysian Government vessels should cease these intrusions and leave STW. Singapore also pointed out that the presence of Malaysian Government vessels in STW raised tensions on the ground, and risked causing an unintended and dangerous incident.
On 7 December 2018, the Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law Mr K. Shanmugam and Attorney-General Mr Lucien Wong met with the Malaysian Attorney-General Mr Tommy Thomas to discuss these and other issues. The Singapore officials proposed to Attorney-General Thomas that Malaysia returns to the status quo ante prior to 25 October 2018, without prejudice to Malaysia's and Singapore's respective positions on the maritime boundary between the two countries in the area which Malaysia now claims. Maritime boundary claims can be made under international law, in accordance with established procedures, without needing to have ships facing off against one another.
The Singapore Government notes the statement issued by the Malaysian Government this evening. Malaysia has acknowledged that Singapore's proposal would have been without prejudice to both sides' respective positions on the maritime boundary. Singapore is hence disappointed that Malaysia is unable to accede to Singapore's proposal to go back to the status quo ante prior to 25 October 2018.
Nevertheless, Singapore is encouraged that Malaysia has undertaken to take all effective measures to de-escalate the situation on the ground, and handle the situation in a calm and peaceful manner. Singapore also welcomes the Malaysian Government's agreement that officials meet in the second week of January 2019, to exchange views on resolving the Johor Bahru Port Limits issue.
Meanwhile, Singapore reiterates its call to Malaysia to revert to the status quo ante prior to 25 October 2018. This will avoid misunderstandings and potential issues on the ground. Malaysia's deployments in this area will not strengthen its legal claim and can only heighten tensions. Malaysia will be responsible for any untoward situations on the ground that arise from continued deployment of its vessels into this area.
The Singapore Government hopes to work with the Malaysian Government to find an amicable resolution of issues between the two countries in accordance with international law, and in the spirit of preserving our important bilateral relationship.
MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
10 DECEMBER 2018