On maritime spat: Good to react calmly

The current maritime dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over waters off Tuas reminds Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong of another territorial dispute when he was prime minister.

Malaysia had claimed that Pedra Branca, an outlying island off eastern Singapore, was part of its territories, and even sent its ships to the disputed area.

Singapore protested.

The matter was taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2003 after intergovernmental talks did not resolve the issue.

The court ruled in favour of Singapore in 2008, a decision that resolved a territorial dispute which began in 1979.

Mr Goh, who was prime minister from 1990 to 2004, said yesterday at a dialogue at a book festival: "The Malaysian vessels intruding into our waters are actually a re-enactment of what they did when we had the dispute over Pedra Branca.

"They sent their ships into waters which were under our jurisdiction for decades. The Malaysians were making a point. They were also claiming the waters. In fact, they were claiming Pedra Branca and other islands around there. So they were making a point that the waters were theirs."

He said Singapore could have chosen to "point our guns at them and say 'You get out or I'll shoot'". "But that would start a very, very serious conflict. So, we decided that we leave the boats alone, just circle around them to tell them that the waters are ours, and the dispute should be referred to international tribunal or arbitration."

As for the current dispute, he noted that "importantly, we are reacting calmly, they are reacting calmly", and said the matter could otherwise be referred to international arbitrators.


Both countries have agreed to meet next month to talk.

On Oct 25, Kuala Lumpur unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits such that they encroached on Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas.

As a result, Malaysian government vessels strayed into Singapore waters, and 14 incursions were recorded between Nov 24 and Dec 5.

Mr Goh said that just as it was during the Pedra Branca dispute, "their (ships) being there makes no difference whatsoever to the claims".

"The worry is this is a port area, so accidents can happen," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 23, 2018, with the headline 'On maritime spat: Good to react calmly'. Print Edition | Subscribe