Observers see Singapore-KL disputes over airspace and waters continuing for some time

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Mustafa Izzuddin believes "these overtures will go down well with the general public in Malaysia and, in particular, Johoreans". ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

The disputes between Singapore and Malaysia over airspace and territorial waters, which surfaced on Tuesday (Dec 4), are likely to continue for some time under the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, observers said.

Hours after Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke announced Kuala Lumpur's intention to reclaim airspace over southern Johor which had long been delegated to Singapore to manage, the Republic highlighted its concern over Kuala Lumpur extending the Johor Baru port limits to encroach on Singapore's waters.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Mustafa Izzuddin said the recent moves could be due to "domestic pressures confronting the Malaysian government to safeguard its own national interests", and to demonstrate to its people that it is strong and competent.

The newly elected government also seeks to "gain political mileage from its domestic populace, as these overtures will go down well with the general public in Malaysia and, in particular, Johoreans", he said.

Bilateral ties went through a rocky patch when Tun Mahathir was prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

Such tensions do not bode well for the region, said one expert. "If Singapore-Malaysia relations become increasingly strained, it will be damaging for Asean as a whole, as these two countries, along with Thailand, have traditionally driven economic integration in the region," said Mr Peter Mumford, Asia director of the Eurasia Group.

Pacific Research Centre's principal adviser Oh Ei Sun said he does not think the new Johor Baru port limits are a deliberate provocation, and they can be resolved after clarification.

He said that past experience shows an "almost established pattern" as to how territorial disputes between Singapore and Malaysia find resolution.

"Usually, it is public proclamations of violation of sovereignty, followed by intensive bilateral negotiations, failing which it would be mutual submission for arbitration or adjudication," said Mr Oh.

"This sets a very good example as to how neighbouring countries could resolve their territorial disputes maturely and peacefully."

Asked whether there is a concern that the recent issues could escalate, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Tuesday that he hoped this would not happen.

"It is certainly not conducive for bilateral relations. We have so many things that we want to work together on. The potential for doing much more is huge," he added.

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin said in a Facebook post: "Looks like some countries are back to their old tricks and games to bolster their own internal positions. Let's stand firm. Let's stand united."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2018, with the headline Observers see S'pore-KL disputes over airspace and waters continuing for some time. Subscribe