The Singapore Government appears to have taken an ignominious retreat in its maritime dispute with Malaysia by allowing Malaysian vessels to operate in the contested area. Just three months ago, in December 2018, the Singapore Government strongly protested Malaysia’s purported move to expand its port boundaries.
Saying ships and vessels from Malaysia have been repeatedly intruding into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas, including vessels from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Department Malaysia, the Singapore Government said such intrusions violates sovereignty and international laws, and that it will not hesitate to “take firm action against intrusions and unauthorised activities”.
Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said then that Singapore navy and Police Coast Guard craft have been patrolling these waters for 20 years or more. “Out of nowhere, Malaysian government vessels now claim these waters as theirs and have been continually intruding since November. These are serious violations of Singapore’s sovereignty.”
He added: “These are serious violations of Singapore’s sovereignty. Our security forces have acted with restraint despite continuing intrusions and provocations. Singaporeans are peace-loving, but I strongly caution violators to leave Singapore territorial waters.”
In what appears to be a U-Turn, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Malaysian vessels will be allowed “to operate in the area in accordance with international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The relevant agencies on both sides will work out practical modalities to avoid untoward incidents in the area.”
The following is the joint-press release by the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Singapore and Malaysia:
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Singapore Dr Vivian Balakrishnan met in Putrajaya, Malaysia on 14 March 2019. The meeting was a follow up from their previous meeting in Singapore on 8 January 2019 where both Ministers outlined their commitment to resolve the maritime issues surrounding the port limits of both our countries.
The Ministers discussed the Working Group’s report on maritime issues surrounding the overlapping Johor Bahru Port Limits off Tanjung Piai and Singapore Port Limits off Tuas.
The report was submitted by the Working Group headed by the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia, Dato’ Sri Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Mr Chee Wee Kiong.
The Foreign Ministers commended the work of the Working Group and were pleased to note the positive progress that has been made by the Working Group.
The Foreign Ministers agreed that Malaysia and Singapore shall implement the following five recommendations in the report with effect from 14 March 2019:
a) To mutually suspend the implementation of their overlapping port limits and apply their port limits in effect prior to 25 October 2018 and 6 December 2018 respectively;
b) To not authorise and to suspend all commercial activities in the area;
c) To not anchor government vessels in the area; and
d) For Malaysia and Singapore vessels to operate in the area in accordance with international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The relevant agencies on both sides will work out practical modalities to avoid untoward incidents in the area;
e) To establish a committee chaired by the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore for boundary delimitation which will ensure implementation of the first four recommendations within one month, and that negotiations for maritime boundary delimitation in the area will commence within one month following such implementation.
These measures taken by both countries shall be without prejudice to Malaysia’s and Singapore’s respective maritime boundary claims in the area. In the event that the committee is unable to reach an amicable solution on delimitation, Malaysia and Singapore may mutually agree to resort to an appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure on terms to be mutually agreed by the parties.
Both Foreign Ministers agreed that these measures were vital to de-escalate the situation on the ground, and pave the way for maritime boundary delimitation of the area.
These measures also demonstrate the commitment of both countries to work together to preserve a strong and positive bilateral relationship on the basis of equality and mutual respect, and to resolve bilateral issues amicably in accordance with international law.
Both Ministers look forward to the successful implementation of the Working Group’s recommendations.