Singapore and Malaysia seek to ease sea, air tensions

Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah (R) with Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan. Photo: Vivian Balakrishnan / Facebook
Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah (R) with Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan. Photo: Vivian Balakrishnan / Facebook

Singapore and Malaysia sought Tuesday to ease airspace and maritime disputes that sent tensions soaring in recent weeks, the latest sign of deteriorating ties since a change of government in Kuala Lumpur.

The neighbors have had testy relations since Malaysia evicted the tiny island from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, ending a brief and stormy union of the former British colonies.

Ties have gone up and down over the years but have been shaky since Mahathir Mohamad unexpectedly returned to the premiership in Malaysia with a shock election victory last year.

Mahathir, 93, had a famously prickly relationship with Malaysia’s tiny southern neighbor during his first stint as premier from 1981 to 2003.

The latest disputes erupted last year when Singapore accused Malaysia of “provocative intrusions” by sending vessels into its waters.

Shortly afterwards, Kuala Lumpur protested Singapore’s plans to implement new landing procedures at a small airport in the financial hub, saying the flight path used by the system would encroach on its airspace.

Malaysia then moved to restrict the use of its airspace in a manner that could affect planes heading to the airport.

But following a meeting Tuesday, the countries’ foreign ministers agreed to “immediately and simultaneously suspend” for one month the implementation of the Singapore landing system as well as the Malaysian airspace restrictions, according to a joint statement.

They also agreed at the meeting in Singapore to set up a working group headed by senior diplomats to look at the maritime dispute.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said the measures “are constructive steps towards calming the situation on the ground”.

“We have a long history of good relations. There is only one way to go forward – that is to be stronger in our ties and improve our relations,” he added.

Ties were warm between the neighbors under the last Malaysian leader Najib Razak, but have quickly started to fray since Mahathir’s return.

Within weeks of taking office, he publicly announced Malaysia was scrapping a joint plan to build a high-speed railway to Singapore, although Malaysia later backtracked and agreed to a delay of two years.

Mahathir has also complained that Malaysia is selling water at too cheap a price to its resource-starved neighbour, and wants to charge more.

Additional reporting by Coconuts Singapore


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