Malaysia says it will take steps to de-escalate situation

A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel (right) passes a Malaysian government vessel in the waters between Singapore and Malaysia, on Dec 6, 2018.
A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel (right) passes a Malaysian government vessel in the waters between Singapore and Malaysia, on Dec 6, 2018.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Singapore encouraged by this, reiterates call for KL to revert to status quo prior to Oct 25

Malaysia yesterday said it will take all effective measures to de-escalate the situation on the ground and handle the ongoing maritime boundary dispute with Singapore in a calm and peaceful manner.

It also reiterated the importance of strong bilateral relations, and hoped that talks on resolving matters would start expeditiously, Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Singapore responded by saying it is "encouraged" that Malaysia has said it will take all effective measures to de-escalate the situation.

Singapore also welcomes the Malaysian government's agreement that officials meet in the second week of January to exchange views on resolving the Johor Baru port limits issue, said the Republic's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

Still, MFA said Singapore is "disappointed" that Malaysia is unable to accede to its proposal to revert to the pre-Oct 25 status quo. The Johor Baru port limits were unilaterally extended by Malaysia that day, with Malaysia claiming waters belonging to Singapore as its own.

Singapore had, in a diplomatic note to Malaysia last Saturday, declined Malaysia's proposal for both sides to cease and desist from sending ships into the disputed area.

It had also called on Malaysia to return to the pre-Oct 25 status quo by immediately withdrawing all its government vessels in the area.

Yesterday, MFA said Malaysia will be responsible for any "untoward situations" on the ground that arise from continued deployment of its vessels into this area.

In its statement, MFA revealed that last Friday, Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Attorney-General Lucien Wong met Malaysian Attorney-General Tommy Thomas to discuss the issue, along with other matters.

The Singapore officials proposed to Mr Thomas that Malaysia return to the status quo ante prior to Oct 25, "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 ships facing off against one another, MFA said.

"Malaysia has acknowledged that Singapore's proposal would have been without prejudice to both sides' respective positions... 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," it added.

"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."

On reiterating its call for Malaysia to revert to the pre-Oct 25 status quo, Singapore said 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," it said. MFA also said 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".

MFA's reply is the latest on an ongoing territorial dispute between both sides that was brought to light last Tuesday. Between Nov 24 and Dec 5, there were 14 incursions by Malaysian government vessels into waters Singapore has regarded as its own.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said earlier yesterday that Malaysia will keep its vessels in the disputed waters until a decision has been reached.

Later at night, he said in an interview on Malaysia's TV1 station: "It happens between neighbours, this overlapping of claims... The issue can be negotiated, if not we go for arbitration, or the courts. But we hold on to the belief that we are in the right."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2018, with the headline 'Malaysia says it will take steps to de-escalate situation'. Print Edition | Subscribe