Neighbourly tensions as Singapore tells Malaysia to back off after repeated vessel intrusions into territorial waters

MINDEF video screengrab

“Back off,” Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan asserted in a stern message to Malaysia yesterday amidst tensions over Malaysian vessels trespassing into Singapore’s territorial waters for the past two weeks.

“Leave our waters while we pursue sit-down dialogues to resolve it,” he said in a media briefing yesterday, expressing displeasure about the 14 intrusions Malaysian vessels have made into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas. The minister also showed a clip of The Republic of Singapore Navy and coast guard issuing repeated warnings to trespassing Malaysian government vessels.

The strain relations began back on Oct 25, when Malaysia published altered limits to its Johor Bahru Port, which extended significantly eastward and intruded into Singapore’s territorial waters. Despite Singapore’s objection to the changes (three diplomatic notes were sent), it appears that Malaysia paid no heed to the protest and allowed its vessels to cruise into Singapore waters after the alteration.

“This is a blatant provocation and a serious violation of our sovereignty and international law,” Khaw said.

Historical arguments

Since at least 1999, Singapore has been exercising its jurisdiction in the waters that are now covered in the altered boundaries of the Johor Bahru Port.

“We have been patrolling the area regularly, and protested any intrusions or unauthorized activities. Malaysia has never laid claim to these waters, or protested our actions there,” Khaw said.

“Now, out of the blue, Malaysia is claiming these territorial waters that belong to Singapore.”

On Wednesday, Malaysia rebutted with an argument that Singapore is not allowed to lay its claim on the area on the basis of its reclamation works in Tuas in recent years. But Khaw clarified that when Malaysia published a map showing the limits of its claimed territorial waters in 1979, there had been no reclamation yet, and Malaysia’s boundaries certainly weren’t extended as it is right now.

 

How it has been since 1999.
How it has been since 1999. Graphic: Ministry of Transport
The changes made on Oct 25, 2018.
The changes made on Oct 25, 2018. Graphic: Ministry of Transport

Malaysia disagreed that the altered Johor Port Limits infringed on Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas, emphasizing that its government vessels were simply patrolling its territorial waters.

“The altered port limits for Johor Bahru Port has not in any way encroached into any part of Singapore,” said Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke in a media statement. “Malaysia has always had and continues to have sovereignty over the waters within the port limits for Johor Bahru Port.”

Graphic: Ministry of Transport
Graphic: Ministry of Transport

Tuas extended

In response to the “provocative developments”, Singapore has since extended its own port limits off Tuas, but the lines remain well within its territorial waters.

Singapore's extended limits now. Graphic: Ministry of Transport
Singapore’s extended limits now. Graphic: Ministry of Transport

So far, local authorities have responded with restraint agains the actions of Malaysian government vessels — one of which has been anchored in Singapore waters for several days in a bold move to mark its territory.

“Singapore cannot allow our sovereignty to be violated, or new facts on the ground to be created,” affirmed Khaw. “Therefore, if it becomes necessary, we will not hesitate to take firm actions against intrusions and unauthorized activities in our waters to protect our territory and sovereignty.”

No need to get your bug-out bag ready just yet, though. Malaysia has proposed that officials from both sides meet to work it out, which Singapore has agreed to and will follow up.

“We still seek good bilateral relations and hope we can work together to find an amicable solution to these issues. When our national interests are challenged, we have to quietly but firmly stand our ground and stay united as one people.”

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