Singapore welcomes Malaysia's move to reduce tensions: Khaw

Republic intends to manage dispute in calm, peaceful manner; agencies will keep watch

Singapore has welcomed Malaysia's moves to defuse tensions between the two countries after its neighbour withdrew two of its vessels that had been in the Republic's territorial waters.

Acknowledging this, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan urged Malaysia to pull back its one remaining ship from these waters, adding that the vessel's presence creates "an unnecessary risk of an accidental escalation on the ground".

This risk is also "not conducive" to the upcoming bilateral talks that both sides have agreed to hold in the second week of January, Mr Khaw told reporters yesterday.

The dispute flared up after Malaysia unilaterally extended its Johor Baru port boundaries through a gazette on Oct 25, encroaching into Singapore territorial waters west of Tuas.

This was followed by a series of incursions by Malaysian government vessels into the Republic's waters. Singapore responded by extending its own port limits last Thursday, which Malaysia protested against.

"Neighbours will always have some disputes and it's how you address them (that matters)," Mr Khaw said.

He also said there were "a few inaccuracies" in a video posted by his Malaysian counterpart Anthony Loke, which suggested that the height restrictions stemming from the new flight procedures would put Pasir Gudang port at risk from pilots flying low to land.

Mr Khaw said this was not the case as the new procedures were only a tool to help the pilot, who still retained control of the plane.

"But the key point is, if it were a technical concern, with goodwill, I'm confident a mutually satisfactory technical solution can be found. The situation seems to be that they are using this technical excuse to trigger a demand to change the airspace arrangement," he said.

After objecting to the Seletar Airport procedures, Malaysia said it wanted to reclaim management of the airspace over southern Johor, where Singapore has been providing air traffic services since 1974.

Reflecting on the turn of events, Mr Khaw said the transport ministries of both countries have worked together very well for many years. "And then out of the blue in October, suddenly, they started a row - in air, water - what next? Land transport too? I wonder why," he said.

 

He quoted a Chinese saying, ben shi tong gen sheng, xiang jian he tai ji, to describe how both countries will suffer from the dispute.

"You are cooking some bean soup, so you are boiling the beans in the pot using the beanstalk... (as fuel for) the fire. The beans are crying out in pain, but the beanstalk is not doing any better, it is also dying in the fire. What for?" he asked.

He cited the manner in which Singapore had handled Malaysia's request to defer the high-speed rail project as an example of how disputes could be resolved. "We could have taken a completely legalistic approach to that project but we chose not to... However, if you prefer to do something else, then there's a different approach. We have options too," he said.

Asked if next month's talks are conditional on Malaysian vessels pulling out, Mr Khaw said: "We are committed to talks and we will talk. That has always been our attitude."

"Peaceful resolution is always the best way forward," he noted, adding that Singapore values its bilateral relationship with Malaysia.

"We explained to them that stationing their ships in our waters does not make an iota of difference to their legal claims... They acknowledge this legal point," Mr Khaw said.

He characterised Malaysia's commitment to de-escalate tensions as a "good move in the right direction". "We too intend to manage this dispute in a calm and peaceful manner," he added.

Meanwhile, Singapore's security agencies continue to patrol the waters and keep a close watch, he said.

Alluding to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's recent comment that Malaysia and Singapore are like a pair of twins, except perhaps the elder twin is a little bit bigger than the younger twin and a bit older, Mr Khaw said the analogy was a good one.

But Mr Khaw added: "As twins, you ought to embrace each other and help each other grow, and help each other succeed and celebrate each other's achievements. Then I think it's so much better."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2018, with the headline 'Singapore welcomes Malaysia's move to reduce tensions: Khaw'. Print Edition | Subscribe