Singapore, KL leaders seek talks to resolve maritime dispute

Singapore, KL leaders seek talks to resolve maritime dispute
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat urged Malaysia to cease the intrusions to avoid escalating tensions, making clear Singapore would defend its sovereignty and territory.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

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 co-operation 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."

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."


Photo: Credits

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.

Retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan shared an article on Facebook in which Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia Supreme Council member Rais Hussin said Singapore will gain nothing by hardening its stance against Malaysia in the ongoing maritime dispute.

"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."

MARITIME DISPUTE BETWEEN SINGAPORE AND MALAYSIA: WHAT BOTH SIDES HAVE SAID

On Oct 25, Malaysia gazetted extended port limits for the Johor Baru port that encroach into Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas. There have been 14 intrusions into the area by Malaysian government vessels since Nov 24. The matter came into the public eye last Tuesday, and Singapore extended its port limits last Thursday. Below are key statements from both sides on the hope that the issue can be resolved amicably.

DEC 4

Singapore's Ministry of Transport, in a media statement: "Malaysia's purported extension of the Johor Baru port limits and the repeated intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore territorial waters are a serious violation of Singapore's sovereignty and international law. These actions are unconducive to good bilateral relations, cause confusion for the international shipping community, and lead to increased navigational and safety risks for all parties. Singapore stands ready to engage with Malaysia to resolve these matters amicably, in accordance with international law."

DEC 5

Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke (above): "Malaysia finds Singapore's claims to be inaccurate, as the altered port limits for Johor Baru port have not in any way encroached into any part of Singapore... It is also within Malaysia's right as a sovereign state to deploy its enforcement and relevant competent agencies in its territorial sea...

Malaysia is prepared to engage with Singapore through appropriate diplomatic channels towards an amicable resolution in this matter."

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in a statement on Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's (above) telephone call with his counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah that same day: "Minister (Vivian) Balakrishnan stressed the urgent need for Malaysia to cease these intrusions so as to comply with international law and to avoid escalating tensions on the ground...

(He) said that Singapore and Malaysia should continue to discuss these issues constructively and emphasised the importance of maintaining a good bilateral relationship between close neighbours and compliance with international law."

Malaysia's Foreign Ministry, in a press statement: "It is important to avoid any acts which may lead to escalation and fuel tension... Malaysia has proposed to convene a meeting between the foreign ministries of both countries to discuss outstanding maritime boundary issues."

DEC 6

Singapore Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan (above): "This violation of Singapore's sovereignty is a serious new issue in our bilateral relations with Malaysia. Singapore seeks friendly relations and close co-operation with Malaysia...

We still seek good bilateral relations, and hope we can work together to find an amicable solution to these issues... While we seek co-operation and friendship with other countries, we must never let other countries take advantage of us. When our national interests are challenged, we have to quietly but firmly stand our ground and stay united as one people."

DEC 7

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (above), in a statement: "Malaysia today proposed to Singapore, through the Singaporean High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, for both countries to cease and desist from sending assets into the disputed area effective 0000 hours on 8 Dec 2018, pending discussions on outstanding maritime boundary issues...

Malaysia also forwarded the draft agenda for a meeting aimed at the amicable resolution of maritime boundary issues between the two countries."

Singapore MFA spokesman: "Singapore remains ready to discuss this issue with Malaysia in a constructive manner in the spirit of preserving our important bilateral relationship. However, Singapore does not agree with Malaysia's proposal for both countries to cease and desist from sending assets into the disputed area... Attempts to create facts on the ground add nothing to Malaysia's legal case and are unhelpful for an amicable resolution of our maritime boundary issues."

DEC 8

Singapore Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing (above): "Accidents can happen. We should revert to the pre-Oct 25th status quo ante for things to calm down. And there are ways to do this under international law without prejudice to Malaysia... Adding more ships and staying longer will not add to their claim. Using force and trying to change the facts at sea will also not add to their claim...

We have responded to their latest Third Party Note. We made the following points to them: First, we welcome talks. We can discuss the dates and the agenda. 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. However, 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.

Second, 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 (above): "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... The important thing is that Singapore agrees to a negotiation - until we finish negotiation, we cannot give a final answer."

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

Purchase this article for republication.

BRANDED CONTENT

SPONSORED CONTENT

Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.