This week has been a tempestuous one for Singapore-Malaysia relations.
On Dec. 4, we learned that Malaysian Government vessels have intruded into Singapore Territorial Waters (STW), following a decision by Malaysia to unilaterally extend the limits of Johor Bahru Port (JPL), and therefore its maritime borders.
On Dec. 5, both Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke made statements suggesting that it was within Malaysia's rights to do so.
This was after Singapore lodged a strong protest with the Malaysian government over these serious violations of international law.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan also called on his counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah on the same day to reiterate Singapore's position.
Malaysia has violated Singapore's territorial sovereignty
On Dec. 6, Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan gave another statement to the media on the issue.
He made the following points:
- Singapore respects bilateral agreements and will uphold international law.
- However, the authorities will protect and defend Singapore's territorial sovereignty.
- Singapore will not hesitate to take firm action against intrusions and unauthorised activities in STW.
Khaw said that since 1999, Singapore has been exercising its jurisdiction in the area that has only recently been claimed in the extended JPL, regularly patrolling the area and protesting intrusions there.
"Malaysia has never laid claim to these waters, or protested our actions there. Now, out of the blue, Malaysia is claiming these territorial waters that belong to Singapore.
Without any prior consultations, Malaysia is seeking to alter unilaterally the long-standing status quo in the area."
"This is a blatant provocation and a serious violation of our sovereignty and international law."
Malaysia ignored Singapore's protests over the unilateral extension of Malaysia's territory
Khaw laid out the escalations committed by Malaysia:
- Following the Oct. 25 Government Gazette that extended the JPL, Singapore sent a Third-Party Note (TPN) on Nov. 5 requesting Malaysia to amend the limits to reflect Singapore's sovereignty.
- Khaw met with his Malaysian counterpart Anthony Loke on Nov. 9 in Bangkok, Thailand, and raised the issue.
- Despite this, Malaysian authorities issued two more documents on Nov. 11 and 22 to inform the shipping community of the new JPL, demonstrating they had ignored Singapore's position.
- Singapore sent a second TPN on Nov. 29 in protest.
To date, Singapore has issued three TPNs to protest 14 intrusions by an undisclosed number of Malaysian government vessels in Singapore's territory.
Khaw said there are currently three Malaysian vessels in STW, with one in Singapore's borders since Dec. 3.
Singapore will not hesitate to take "firm actions" against intrusions
Khaw had earlier stated that the Republic of Singapore Navy and the Police coast guard have patrolled the area.
He also said they have demonstrated "restraint" when faced with "aggressive actions" by Malaysian Government vessels.
However, Singapore cannot allow its sovereignty to be violated or for new facts on the ground to be created.
"Therefore, if it becomes necessary, we will not hesitate to take firm actions against intrusions and unauthorised activities in our waters to protect our territory and sovereignty."
In response to these provocations, Singapore has issued a new government Gazette that will extend Singapore's port limits off Tuas via an MPA notification.
This extension, unlike Malaysia's, falls well within STW and tracks the eastern boundary of the 1999 JPL. It will go into effect on Dec. 6.
Hope things will work out
Khaw also shared his personal feelings on the recent escalation in tensions, and said:
"I am greatly saddened by this development. Having been in government for 40 years, I cannot help feeling a sense of deja vu."
Khaw said that he got a "distinct feeling" that the younger Ministers in Malaysia wanted a fresh start to its relationship with Singapore, without the "past baggage", following the negotiations with Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali over the High Speed Rail.
He made the point that in that spirit of bilateral cooperation, Singapore decided not to use the full legal extent of the agreement on the HSR, and instead worked out an alternate way for Malaysia to defer the project.
Khaw said he remained optimistic that an amicable solution could be reached. Malaysia has publicly proposed a meeting between the two sides to discuss the matter.
Khaw said that Singapore agrees to this and will follow up, but in the meantime, Malaysian government vessels should leave Singapore waters and return to the status quo before Oct. 25.
"While we seek cooperation 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."
Top image by Jonathan Lim.