Singapore, KL leaders seek talks to resolve maritime dispute

  • Leaders on both sides stress need for peaceful resolution amid tensions; observers welcome it

As the stand-off between Singapore and Malaysia over maritime boundaries enters its second week, leaders on both sides have made calls for talks to resolve the simmering dispute.

Both countries, though, have their own views on how to do so and the way forward.

Weighing in for the first time, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Sunday (Dec 9) that the intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore territorial waters are a “violation of Singapore’s sovereignty and international law” and a “serious matter of national interest”.

He urged Malaysia to cease the intrusions to avoid escalating tensions, making clear Singapore would defend its sovereignty and territory.

He added in a Facebook post: “Malaysia is our closest neighbour. We have close people-to-people ties. Singapore seeks close cooperation with Malaysia.

“I hope that Singapore and Malaysia discuss issues constructively and peacefully, in compliance with international law. This will benefit peoples of both countries.”

He also called on Singaporeans to “remain calm and united at a time like this”.

Singapore Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli also called the intrusions “provocative and unacceptable”, adding that Singapore needed to stay firm to defend its sovereignty.

“Above all, we must maintain good relations and resolve this issue in a peaceful and diplomatic manner,” he said in a Facebook post.

Their remarks came a day after Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said Singapore welcomed talks to resolve the matter.

“The Singapore Government is hopeful that through the engagement of both countries, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore can reach a swift and amicable resolution to this dispute,” he said.

“If such talks do not eventually produce an amicable resolution, the Singapore Government would be prepared for this matter to be settled by recourse to an appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure.”

Mr Chan added: “Importantly, let us calm down the ground situation first. Revert to the pre-Oct 25th status quo ante. Have the Malaysian ships leave the area peacefully, immediately.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had last Saturday signalled Kuala Lumpur’s plan to pursue negotiations to resolve the matter.

Tun Mahathir did not address the Malaysian Foreign Ministry’s proposal last Friday for both sides to “cease and desist” from sending assets into the area, which Singapore had said it did not agree with.

On Oct 25, Malaysia published a notice in the Federal Government Gazette to extend the Johor Baru port limits.

The new lines encroach into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas. And they go beyond Malaysia’s territorial claims, which it published in a 1979 map that Singapore has not agreed to.

The Republic has lodged diplomatic protests over the new port limits, but Malaysia has maintained they are within its territorial waters.

Between Nov 24 and Dec 5, there were 14 intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into the area, which Singapore regards as its territorial waters.

Singapore’s Transport Ministry made the issue known to the public last Tuesday, saying that the Republic had protested against the unauthorised movements of, and assertions of sovereignty by, these vessels, which are inconsistent with international law.

Last Thursday, Singapore extended its own port limits, and reiterated its call for Malaysian ships to leave Singapore territorial waters, a point that Mr Chan also made last Saturday.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said last Friday that Malaysia had sent the draft agenda for a meeting aimed at the resolution of maritime boundary issues between the two countries, and said his government hoped the meeting could be held some time in the middle of this month.

Observers welcomed these latest developments seeking a settlement, but noted that the dispute might take some time to resolve.

“It is good that both countries are talking about the need to talk,” said Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore’s political science department.

Prof Singh said there is a pattern to how disputes between Singapore and Malaysia are resolved. “At the end of the day, after all the (heat), we will sit down and talk,” he added.

He expects the negotiations to be protracted, and possibly even be referred to an international tribunal.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin said that course of action is usually the “last resort”.

“We don’t want to have a situation where you win, I lose, or I lose and you win. At the end of the day, it is still best dealt with bilaterally,” Mr Zulkifli added.

Malaysia and Singapore have held negotiations on boundary and other issues in the past.

Both countries agreed on a large part of their maritime boundary along the Johor Strait in a 1995 bilateral agreement.

They have also mutually agreed to refer disputes to third-party settlement procedures, such as that over Pedra Branca.

In 2008, the International Court of Justice awarded the island to Singapore, and nearby Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

A three-year dispute over reclamation in the Johor Strait was also headed for international arbitration, but a settlement agreement was reached and inked in 2005 between Singapore and Malaysia.

Malaysia had claimed that Singapore’s reclamation caused serious and irreversible damage to the environment, but international experts found that the works caused no major impact.

Observers who spoke to The Straits Times said tensions need to be defused.

Prof Singh said: “The danger of an accidental clash is very high. The ships are too close to each other. Meanwhile, both countries have also politicised this domestically, and this makes it difficult for each to take a step back.”

Added Mr Zulkifli: “Matters on the ground can escalate and take away the flexibility that political leaders have.”


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