Singapore, Malaysia affirm desire to maintain good ties after meetings between ministers

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali taking a stroll along the Singapore River after dinner on Sunday. Dr Balakrishnan said they had "an open and candid discussion of the issues currently confronting
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali taking a stroll along the Singapore River after dinner on Sunday. Dr Balakrishnan said they had "an open and candid discussion of the issues currently confronting us" and reaffirmed that there are "far more opportunities for Malaysia and Singapore to work together", while Mr Azmin described their meeting as "productive... as we work towards resolving some bilateral issues".PHOTO: VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali taking a stroll along the Singapore River after dinner on Sunday. Dr Balakrishnan said they had "an open and candid discussion of the issues currently confronting
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong (above) and Mr Azmin met over breakfast yesterday, after which Mr Azmin called on Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.PHOTO: AZMIN ALI/FACEBOOK, KHAW BOON WAN/FACEBOOK
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali taking a stroll along the Singapore River after dinner on Sunday. Dr Balakrishnan said they had "an open and candid discussion of the issues currently confronting
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong (left) and Mr Azmin met over breakfast yesterday, after which Mr Azmin called on Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan (right).PHOTO: AZMIN ALI/FACEBOOK, KHAW BOON WAN/FACEBOOK

Visiting Malaysian minister holds talks with leaders here despite postponement of JMC meeting

Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali was scheduled to jointly chair a meeting on bilateral cooperation for Iskandar Malaysia with Singapore's National Development Minister Lawrence Wong here yesterday.

But the meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) for Iskandar Malaysia was postponed last week following Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian's intrusion into Singapore territorial waters.

Nevertheless, Datuk Seri Azmin made a two-day visit that saw both governments affirming a desire to maintain good ties to benefit their interdependent economies.

Mr Azmin met Mr Wong over breakfast yesterday morning before meeting Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan. He also met Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Sunday.

All four leaders have since posted on their respective social media channels about putting "bilateral relations back on track" and working towards the mutual benefit of the two neighbours.

Mr Azmin said in a Facebook post after his meeting with Mr Wong that they had "a frank and positive discussion on bilateral issues concerning Singapore and Malaysia".

Mr Wong said on Facebook that they had a good breakfast meeting.

"I am glad that minister Azmin continued with his visit to Singapore to meet with us, and to discuss ways to put our bilateral relations on track," he said.

"The JMC has met for more than 10 years and has overseen many projects, including joint investment and tourism promotion," added Mr Wong. "These projects have been mutually beneficial because our economies are closely intertwined and highly interdependent. That is why we both want good and stable bilateral relations, so that both sides can do more together to spur each other's development and success."

Dr Balakrishnan, who had dinner with Mr Azmin on Sunday and thereafter a stroll together along the Singapore River, said in a Facebook post: "We had an open and candid discussion of the issues currently confronting us. We reaffirmed that there are far more opportunities for Malaysia and Singapore to work together, especially at this time of global economic transformation."

In a Facebook post, Mr Azmin, a senior minister in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Cabinet, described their meeting as "productive... as we work towards resolving some bilateral issues".

The postponement of the JMC meeting was the latest in a string of bilateral hiccups since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad returned to power following an unprecedented change of government last May.

The maritime dispute was sparked when, on Oct 25, Malaysia unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits to encroach on Singapore territorial waters. The foreign ministers of both countries met in Singapore last Tuesday and agreed to resolve their bilateral airspace and maritime disputes in a calm and constructive manner.

 
 
 

But after Datuk Osman boarded a Malaysian government vessel to visit another vessel anchored illegally in Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas, Singapore protested against the intrusion in a diplomatic note and proposed to postpone the JMC meeting. Malaysia agreed.

Dr Balakrishnan explained to Parliament yesterday that the intrusion went against the spirit of the foreign ministers' agreement. He said: "It undermined the goodwill and trust necessary for further cooperation between the two countries, especially cooperation involving Johor. It made it untenable to proceed with the JMC meeting."

Mr Osman would also have been involved in the JMC meeting.

"But, most regrettably, the Menteri Besar staged a publicised visit to the Malaysian Marine Department vessel anchored in Singapore territorial waters off Tuas on Jan 9, 2019," Dr Balakrishnan said.

The postponed meeting would have been the 14th for the JMC, which was set up in 2007 for both sides to work together in the South Johor economic zone of Iskandar, on areas from transport to tourism.

This includes the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) and the Rapid Transit System (RTS) linking Woodlands and Johor Baru.

Mr Azmin and Mr Khaw had led talks to defer the HSR last year, and Mr Azmin said the fruitful outcome of those negotiations had laid the "foundation for a positive working relationship to resolve issues".

Mr Khaw said of their meeting in a Facebook post: "He is aware of the unnecessary disputes at Tuas and Seletar. We share a common desire to bring bilateral relations back on track, so that good projects, like the RTS Link between Woodlands and JB, can materialise, to benefit both our peoples."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore, KL affirm desire to maintain good ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe