Singapore, Malaysia to start talks on maritime boundary delimitation within a month

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad at the Prime Minister’s Office at the Perdana Putra Building in Putrajaya on April 9, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
PM Lee and Tun Dr Mahathir at Perdana Putra in Putrajaya on April 9, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
PM Lee and the Singapore delegation. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Dr Mahathir and the Malaysian delegation. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
(From left) Mrs Lee, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah at the Protocol Gallery of the Seri Perdana in Putrajaya on April 9, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Tun Dr Siti Hasmah meeting Mrs Lee inside the Red Lounge/Blue Lounge (Holding Room) of the Seri Perdana in Putrajaya on April 9, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Tun Dr Siti Hasmah and Mrs Lee walking towards the Protocol Gallery of the Seri Perdana in Putrajaya on April 9, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

PUTRAJAYA - Singapore and Malaysia will begin negotiations to delimit their maritime boundaries in a month, as both countries have implemented measures to de-escalate the situation at sea, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking at a joint press conference with his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad at Perdana Putra after their Leaders' Retreat on Tuesday (April 9), PM Lee noted that both countries have suspended the extensions of their overlapping port limits, and ceased anchoring government vessels in the area.

"With this implementation, we are commencing negotiations on boundary delimitation in a month," he said.

The dispute over maritime boundaries was one of several current bilateral issues that both leaders addressed during their meeting. The others included airspace, water and connectivity.

PM Lee said he and Tun Dr Mahathir affirmed their commitment to a cooperative and forward-looking bilateral relationship during the retreat, the first with the Pakatan Harapan government since it came to power in May 2018.

"The relationship between our two countries is rooted in our long history, and strong family and business ties," he said. "This remains unchanged with the new Malaysian government," he added.

He also invited Dr Mahathir and his wife Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali to this year's National Day Parade at the Padang on Aug 9. Dr Mahathir said he was glad to accept the invitation.

Sustainable water supply

On water, PM Lee said he told Dr Mahathir that Singapore has two concerns regarding water from Johor.

The first is pollution of the Johor River. PUB's waterworks at Kota Tinggi had to shut down last week because of high ammonia levels. The source of pollution was traced to a palm oil mill in Sedenak.

"If Johor River suffers an incident like that which happened at Sungai Kim Kim recently, it will be disastrous for both countries," said PM Lee.

The other is the long-term sustainable yield of the Johor River.

PM Lee noted that Johor has built water plants on the Johor River, upstream of PUB's waterworks at Kota Tinggi.

The combined amount these plants draw may well exceed the river's sustainable yield, he said, adding that there is a need to study how to meet both Johor's and Singapore's water requirements for the remainder of the 1962 Water Agreement.

It is in both countries' interests to work together to ensure sustainable water supply for both sides, because this will reduce the potential for conflict in the future, he said.

Both leaders also agreed that their respective attorneys-general should continue their dialogue, and understand each other's perspectives and concerns on the price of raw water sold to Singapore under the 1962 Water Agreement.

The foreign ministers from both countries will be in charge of this matter, he added.

PM Lee, Tun Dr Mahathir and the delegations from both countries meeting at the Perdana Putra Building on April 9, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Under the agreement, which expires in 2061, Singapore can draw up to 250 million gallons a day of raw water from Johor at three sen per 1,000 gallons. Dr Mahathir has previously said the price is too low, and wants to raise it.

On Tuesday, PM Lee said both countries' respective positions on water price are well known. "Singapore's position is that Malaysia has lost its right to review, but we agreed in November that our two attorneys-general would meet to understand each other's legal positions on the right to review," he added.

Airspace issues

PM Lee noted that Malaysia's indefinite suspension of its permanent restricted area over Pasir Gudang and Singapore's withdrawal of the Instrument Landing System procedures at Seletar Airport clear the way for Malaysian carrier Firefly to start services to Seletar from April 21.

On Monday, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had said at a press conference that the civil aviation authorities from both countries would work together to develop GPS-based instrument approach procedures for Seletar Airport, to enhance safety.

Malaysia has also stated its intention to review the existing arrangement that sees Singapore air traffic controllers manage airspace over southern Johor. A high-level committee chaired by senior transport officials from both countries was formed earlier this year on this.

Dr Mahathir said Malaysia's objective is to take back the delegated airspace from Singapore in the area concerned in stages, from the end of 2019 to 2023.

PM Lee noted that civil aviation is growing rapidly on both sides, with both Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and Changi being major regional airports. In fact, KLIA has greater capacity to grow, he noted.

"Singapore is ready to discuss this matter with Malaysia," PM Lee said.

"The key considerations are the safety and efficiency of air traffic operations, and the needs and interests of both countries. I told Dr Mahathir this is a complex matter that will involve consulting many stakeholders, including airlines and ICAO, and cannot be rushed," he added. ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

RTS and connectivity projects

Both leaders have tasked their attorneys-general to work out a supplemental agreement to suspend the cross-border rail link project between Johor Baru and Woodlands for six months, said PM Lee.

Malaysia had requested a six-month suspension of the JB-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link, to reassess its options.

The supplemental agreement would give effect to the suspension, similar to what was done for the suspension of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project last year.

Singapore and Malaysia had last year agreed to a two-year suspension of the HSR, with Malaysia paying Singapore $15 million for abortive costs incurred due to the suspension.

PM Lee noted that there is still one year for the HSR Suspension Agreement to run, till next May.

"Singapore continues to see (the HSR) as a good project," he said. "But we understand why Malaysia needs time to review the cost and alternative options. We look forward to receiving Malaysia's proposals soon, and working with them to find a way forward that works for both countries."

Beyond these topical bilateral issues, the broader Singapore-Malaysia relationship continues to grow, PM Lee said.

He cited how the Joint Ministerial Committee on Iskandar Malaysia, chaired by Economics Affairs Minister Azmin Ali and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, is working to further cooperation on multiple fronts.

Both countries are each other's second-largest trading partners, with bilateral trade at close to $120 billion last year. And business ties remain strong. The Singapore Manufacturing Federation is renewing its memorandum of understanding to collaborate with the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers later this month, PM Lee noted.

As close neighbours, Singapore and Malaysia must expect issues to arise from time to time, PM Lee said.

"But provided we address them in a constructive spirit, we can manage the problems, contain the side effects, and work towards win-win outcomes."

Read the joint statement below by both leaders.

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