Singapore to discuss issues with Malaysia calmly, but will guard its turf: Vivian Balakrishnan

Countries can expect consequences if they embark on 'antics' against Republic, he says

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan speaking in Parliament on Jan 14, 2019. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

Singapore will do its best to discuss all outstanding bilateral issues with Malaysia in a calm, reasonable and focused manner, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament yesterday. But he warned of "consequences" if other nations embarked on "adventures and antics" against it.

Dr Balakrishnan also said he does not expect a quick or smooth resolution to these issues with Malaysia, which include disputes over maritime and airspace boundaries.

Last October, Malaysia unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits into Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas. It has also objected to the implementation of new landing procedures for Seletar Airport.

"Both of these sets of sudden actions upset the status quo that has been in place for many years," Dr Balakrishnan said in his statement, where he set out the facts of each issue and highlighted steps that both sides have taken to find a constructive way forward. "These actions did not bode well for our bilateral relationship. They created the risk of a dangerous downward spiral of measures and counter-measures."

On Malaysia's extension of port limits, he said it goes beyond even the territorial sea claims in its 1979 map, which Singapore has rejected consistently. "The inescapable conclusion is that the new Johor Baru port limits transgress into what are indisputably Singapore territorial waters," said the minister, highlighting how Singapore has long exercised sovereignty and patrolled the disputed waters without any protest from Malaysia.

He also pointed out that daily intrusions into these waters by Malaysian government vessels since November have continued despite the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry declaring that it would take "all effective measures" to de-escalate the situation on the ground. "These intrusions do not help Malaysia's legal case. All they do is to raise tensions and endanger navigational safety in the area," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart had agreed last week to form a working group to discuss matters and de-escalate the situation in the waters off Tuas.

While Singapore believes that maritime boundary delimitation is best resolved through negotiations, it is prepared to settle disputes via an appropriate international third party dispute settlement procedure if such negotiations fail, he said.

Replying to a question from Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) on what actions Singapore could take if there were further intrusions into its waters, Dr Balakrishnan said: "We will always take appropriate measures to safeguard our interest, and any country dealing with Singapore must not assume that it is cost-free to embark on any adventures or antics against us. There will be consequences."

He also addressed the 1962 Water Agreement, which Malaysia wants to revise. The attorneys-general on both sides had met last month to better understand each other's position on whether Malaysia still had the right to review the price of water, but it was overshadowed by other issues that subsequently arose. They will meet again to continue discussions, he said.

The transport ministers from both countries have also agreed to meet later this month for further discussions on the airspace dispute.

MPs had filed 14 questions on the disputes with Malaysia, and seven members had supplementary questions for Dr Balakrishnan.

Concluding his speech, he said: "The strength of Singapore's diplomacy depends on domestic unity and resilience, and the fact that we cannot be intimidated or bought."

This is why Total Defence and investment in the Singapore Armed Forces are so important, he added.

Resilience, he said, includes improving Singapore's water supply infrastructure, namely Newater and desalinated water, strengthening food security by diversifying food sources, and ensuring a strong, diversified labour market.

As a small state with limited resources, the quest for security and resilience has been "a constant, relentless imperative" since independence, Dr Balakrishnan noted.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2019, with the headline Singapore to discuss issues with Malaysia calmly, but will guard its turf: Vivian Balakrishnan. Subscribe