Malaysia must get its government vessels to leave Singapore territorial waters at once and return to the pre-Oct 25 status quo, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said.
In his first public comments on the dispute since it became public on Tuesday, Mr Chan told reporters yesterday the Republic welcomes talks and hopes for a "swift and amicable resolution" of the matter.
The Singapore Government is also prepared for the dispute to be resolved "by recourse to an appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure". But it was important, he said, to "calm down the ground situation first".
"Revert to the pre-Oct 25 status quo ante. Have the Malaysian ships leave the area peacefully, immediately," he said.
Mr Chan said these points were conveyed in a diplomatic note sent to Malaysia yesterday morning.
Malaysia had, on Friday, sent Singapore a diplomatic note, proposing both sides "cease and desist" sending assets to the disputed area, pending discussions on outstanding maritime boundary issues.
Later that night, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected this proposal, and called on Malaysian government vessels to leave the area, which Malaysia laid claim to for the first time on Oct 25 when it gazetted an extension of Johor Baru port limits. Singapore has protested against the extension and extended its own port limits on Thursday.
Mr Chan noted that the situation on the ground was tense, with ships in close proximity to one another.
"We know that some ships are armed. So the risk of escalation cannot be underestimated. Accidents can happen," he said, stressing the need for Malaysia to revert to the status quo before Oct 25.
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu also weighed in on the matter at a police event yesterday, saying that where Singapore's sovereign rights are affected, "we must take firm action, but we must also remain calm".
She noted that the Singapore Police Coast Guard has been even busier patrolling the Republic's territorial waters after Malaysia started plying its vessels there recently. She also hoped the bilateral relationship could be put back on track.
Meanwhile, the opposition Workers' Party issued a strong statement on the deployment of Malaysian vessels into Singapore waters.
"Escalatory actions like the unilateral deployment of vessels to engender new facts on the ground are not only unnecessary and provocative, they do not set the right tone for Singapore-Malaysia relations for our people," the Workers' Party said, expressing its support for all the officers who have been activated to deal with the incursions.
Across the Causeway, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he was open to talking. He told reporters yesterday: "A lot of people announce their borders off and on, and that causes a lot of disputes, so we will settle the disputes based on legal provisions and our rights."
In his remarks, Mr Chan said Malaysia's proposal "cannot be right". Singapore's Navy and Police Coast Guard have long been patrolling the waters off Tuas, which Malaysia now claims. And Malaysia's latest claim goes beyond its 1979 maritime boundaries map, which Singapore never accepted.
Malaysia followed that map when it announced port limits for Johor Baru port in 1999. But its latest notice is the first time it is claiming the area at the centre of the dispute.
Mr Chan, a former army chief, said the Malaysian government vessels in the area are conducting unauthorised activities under international law and refusing to leave.
He said: "(Malaysia is) suggesting that Singapore vessels leave the area for talks to happen. That's not right. That cannot be right... You make a claim. You send forces in. You ask Singapore to leave, as conditions to start talks? How can this be?"
Younger Malaysian leaders he has met since May have said they want to work closer together, Mr Chan said. "I hope they still believe in working together. Then we don't have to expend our energies managing these unnecessary, unhelpful and unproductive activities."
Correction note: The headline has been edited for accuracy. We are sorry for the earlier version which incorrectly reflected what Minister Chan Chun Sing said.
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