Officials from Singapore and Malaysia met yesterday and agreed to resolve disputes over airspace and territorial waters that have driven a wedge between the Southeast Asian neighbors.
The spat concerns waters off western Singapore that are contested by both countries. The countries also disagree on an instrument landing system used by a Singapore civilian airport since January that allows landings in low visibility. Malaysian officials have said these landings would encroach on its airspace and stop parts of an industrial town from having tall buildings or even mobile cranes. It has declared an area as restricted for military activities.
Yesterday, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart, Saifuddin Abdullah, suspended the landing system and restrictions for a month. They promised further discussions and also announced a working group for maritime tensions.
The ministers had a “positive and constructive meeting” in the city-state, a joint statement released by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “They agreed on the importance of keeping the situation on the ground calm to allow discussions to take place in a conducive atmosphere,” it added.
Last October, Malaysia extended its port limits into waters Singapore regarded as its own. In response, Singapore claimed the area and reported 14 “intrusions” by Malaysian government vessels between Nov. 24 and Dec. 5. Both sides have refused to budge on their claims but have said they want a peaceful resolution.
“At the moment, because there is no decision, the vessels are there. Singaporean vessels are there, our vessels are there,” Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters.
Mahathir led Malaysia for 22 years before stepping down in 2003. During his term there were frequent sharp exchanges with Singapore and its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
Last May, an electoral upset brought Mahathir into power again. He had put aside a dispute with a former political nemesis to lead a four-party coalition to victory. Since then, the 93-year-old has been fully occupied with establishing his own government and trying to repair Malaysia’s finances following a massive corruption scandal that helped topple his predecessor, Najib Razak.
The Malaysian leader’s return worries some in Singapore who fear he will raise prices for the water that the city-state relies on. He has already postponed a high-speed rail project that cuts traveling time between Singapore and Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The island nation, which made the leap from colonial port to bustling metropolis, is widely seen as the smaller but wealthier of the two countries.
Rais Hussin, a supreme council member from Mahathir’s political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, said in a commentary that Singapore will suffer “pain by a thousand cuts” for its stance at sea.
“A small gesture of kindness to Malaysia, even the occasional appreciative word, would be nice. Instead, Singapore often takes a holier-than-thou approach — believing that only they are right and everyone else is wrong,” he wrote.
“Chill, man,” Ho Ching, the wife of Singapore’s prime minister, responded on Facebook.
The countries were briefly merged in 1963 but separated soon after. Annabelle Liang, Singapore, AP