Singapore has the ability to compel intruding Malaysian government vessels to leave its territorial waters, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament yesterday.
But the Republic's security agencies have been ordered to exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions for now, "so as not to jeopardise the conditions necessary for constructive discussions and peaceful resolution of the dispute".
Dr Ng made the point when replying to Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan, who had asked what has been and will be done to prevent more Malaysian vessels from entering Singapore's territorial waters.
Last week, Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian posted on Facebook photos of him visiting a Malaysian government vessel anchored in Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas.
Incidents like this are "provocative and escalatory", and contradict the officially stated policy of the Malaysian government, Dr Ng said.
"Tensions and real risks increased during this incident," he said, adding that Singapore's security agencies had detected the movement of Datuk Osman's entourage early, during which the number of Malaysian government vessels in Singapore's waters increased from two to five.
"Our Police Coast Guard and Republic of Singapore Navy vessels responded promptly to this provocation, as they had to," he said.
"As a result, the total number of vessels in the area more than doubled. These provocations do nothing to help resolve disputes and indeed can precipitate incidents on the ground, which will do lasting harm to bilateral ties."
In October last year, Malaysia unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits into Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas.
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.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan delivered a ministerial statement in Parliament setting out Singapore's position on the various disputes with Malaysia, including the issue of maritime boundaries.
Dr Balakrishnan said Malaysia's extension of port limits goes beyond even the territorial sea claims in its 1979 map, which Singapore has rejected consistently.
He also highlighted how Singapore has long exercised sovereignty and patrolled the disputed waters without any protest from Malaysia.
Dr Ng said Singapore's Police Coast Guard, Republic of Singapore Navy, and Maritime and Port Authority will continue to protect and assert the Republic's sovereignty in its territorial waters off Tuas and the waters in Singapore port limits.
"Our security agencies carry out their operational duties with the utmost professionalism," he said, adding that Singapore's security personnel have repeatedly pressed the Malaysian vessels to leave the area.
"We will continue to do so as their presence does not strengthen Malaysia's legal claims in any way, and indeed can result in mishaps or regrettable incidents," he said.
Separately, Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali told reporters after the swearing-in of the new Sultan of Pahang yesterday that there were bilateral issues, but added: "With the wisdom and the leadership of both countries, I believe engagement will provide a better result."