Parliament: 'Reasonable progress' made in discussions on maritime dispute with Malaysia, says Vivian Balakrishnan

A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel (far right) patrolling the waters off Tuas on Dec 6, 2018. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Singapore and Malaysia have made "reasonable progress" in discussions over an ongoing maritime border dispute, said Acting Transport Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday (March 7).

Dr Balakrishnan, also Foreign Minister, said in Parliament that he hopes to make some joint announcements with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in the next one or two weeks.

He added that both countries have been engaged in "intensive discussions" to de-escalate the situation on the ground.

Dr Balakrishnan was responding to Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), who raised concerns about Malaysia's unilateral extension of the Johor Baru port limits in October 2018, which encroached into Singapore's territorial waters.

Noting that there has not been a resolution to the matter, Mr Ang also asked whether the dispute will affect the Tuas megaport, that is to be fully developed by the 2040s.

Dr Balakrishnan said during the debate on the Transport Ministry's budget: "Development works are proceeding as planned, and there will be no impact to access for ships calling at the terminal in the future."

He assured the House that Singapore's "security agencies will continue to be vigilant, and safeguard the sovereignty and security of our territorial waters".

So, will the ongoing maritime dispute affect the viability of the future Tuas Terminal? He said categorically: "No."

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The new Johor Baru port limits go beyond what Malaysia has been claiming as its own waters in a 1979 map, which Singapore has consistently rejected.

"The inescapable conclusion is that the new Johor Baru port limits transgress into what are indisputably Singapore territorial waters," said Dr Balakrishnan.

Dr Balakrishnan is standing in for Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who is recovering from surgery for a fractured left arm.

Since Kuala Lumpur altered the Johor Baru port boundaries, Malaysian government vessels have been intruding into Singapore's territorial waters. In response, Singapore extended its own port limits off Tuas in December.

Last month, the Greek-registered bulk carrier Pireas collided with Malaysian government vessel Polaris, which was anchored illegally in Singapore's territorial waters.

This occurred as a joint working group was announced by the countries' foreign ministers and formed in January, to study and discuss the legal and operational issues concerning the maritime claims.

"Our approach to engaging Malaysia remains unchanged," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"We have upheld international law and respected the sanctity of international agreements. At the same time, we have been reasonable and constructive in trying to resolve issues in a win-win manner," he added.

In an update, Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min said on Thursday that the reclamation works for Tuas Terminal are progressing well and the first phase of operations are on track to start in 2021.

"Not only will Tuas Terminal be able to handle high container volumes and bigger vessels, it will be a smarter port - with a higher degree of automation to improve efficiency, safety and service levels," said Dr Lam.

The Tuas Terminal will be developed in four phases, over the span of some 30 years.

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