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And we thought the origins of cendol would be the biggest beef between Malaysia and Singapore this month. The post-election push to re-examine all contracts in Malaysia saw hiccups in the Singapore relationship with the long-running KL-Singapore High-Speed Rail project officially postponed in September. That announcement followed a renegotiation in the water supply deal, which Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called “too costly”.

But all of that pales in comparison to a tit-for-tat dispute over air and sea borders. Could it all just be a distraction engineered in Kuala Lumpur?

Erin Cook

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Singapore and Malaysia—all’s fair in air and sea?

‘Aggressive actions’ That’s what Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said last Thursday of the 14 ‘intrusions’ of official Malaysian vessels into Singaporean waters. His comments were joined by Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, who said the movements are “serious violations of Singapore’s sovereignty”. These were the heaviest words yet in a bubbling border dispute between the two countries since Malaysia quietly opted to expand the limits of the Johor Bahru port back in late October. The October update on the boundary extended it further east into Singapore’s waters than the 1979 map agreed to by both countries. Singapore stayed fairly low-key for just over a month, with talks on the sidelines of the Asean summit they hoped would lead to resolution. That didn’t quite come together and by Tuesday, Dec. 4, Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority had had enough, issuing a rebuke to all vessels in the port to ignore the Malaysian claim.


Battle of the statements That same day Singapore made a ‘strong protest’ to Malaysia, saying please back off and reconsider the move. “We note with grave concern that Malaysia has recently purported to extend the Johor Bahru port limits in a manner which encroaches into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas,” the Transport Ministry statement said, as reported by Reuters. International law is there for a reason, it said, let’s work this out. Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook wasn’t biting, issuing a statement the next day saying: “The altered port limits of Johor Bahru port are in Malaysia’s territorial sea and it is well within Malaysia’s right to draw any port limit in our territorial sea”. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also shrugged off the protests, maintaining his country has not encroached on the southern neighbour.


It takes two By last Thursday, Singapore announced its own port expansion and rhetoric heightened. "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," Minister Khaw said. “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.” Yikes. Ooh, hold up. How about everyone relaxes and doesn’t send anything through the disputed waters until this is all sorted, Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Saifuddin Abdullah suggested Friday. He called Singapore’s port moves “a clear violation of Malaysia’s sovereignty and international law” and said a truce of sorts was needed until talks could find a resolution. Okay, sure, says Singapore. Just get the ships out of here asap.


Skyhigh Malaysia wants its airspace back. Minister Loke has taken up the fight to regain control of the airspace in Johor, telling a news conference early last week that Malaysian capabilities have improved markedly since Singapore took control back in 1974. Singapore isn’t too keen, saying “any proposed changes will impact many stakeholders”. While the maritime boundary has gotten the bulk of the attention over the last 10 days, the airspace might prove to be the bigger issue. Minister Loke took to Facebook on Tuesday to lay out the government’s case for reclaiming. “Hi Singapore, Seletar Airport is yours, but Pasir Gudang, Johor, Malaysia is ours. So please hear us out”, he says in the video. It has weird implications for development in Johor, like no tall buildings or cranes which could hinder the flight path and the minister doesn’t think it’s very fair for that decision to be made by Singapore. Relax, said Singapore in response, flights into the floated Seletar Airport would not obstruct Malaysia. It’s a “technical concern” and Minister Khaw is “confident a mutually satisfactory technical solution can be found”.


And now? Last week’s drama was just a precursor. Bilateral talks next month are set to find a resolution, but don’t expect both sides of the Causeway to just chill until then. As of Wednesday, Minister Khaw says Malaysia has ‘taken steps’ with just one vessel remaining in the disputed area. “However while they committed to de-escalate and have taken some steps, they do not agree to withdraw completely”, he said yesterday. He warns of an “unnecessary risk of an accidental escalation on the ground”. Malaysian media reported on the comments somewhat differently to their Singaporean counterparts. ‘Despite Khaw’s assertion, Malaysian vessels are not encroaching on Singapore’s border as the area is still contested’, the Malay Mail reported, adding that Singapore has not removed their own vessels from the same waters.


Not that all of Malaysia is together on this. The opposition has accused Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu of not taking the dispute seriously enough. "This issue should be taken seriously by all parties, especially since it involves the question of state sovereignty, especially in Johor”, MCA president Dr Wee Ka Siong said yesterday. Mat Sabu’s boss, PM Mahathir, wasn’t too keen to go overly hard last week calling the two countries “twins”.  

Erin Cook writes Shorts for Splice Media

Erin is a Jakarta-based journalist covering Asean and Southeast Asian politics. She curates the
Dari Mulut ke Mulut newsletter, bringing together the top stories and best in analysis from the region every Friday. Follow Erin on Twitter.
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