KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia and Singapore on April 8 reverted to their maritime boundaries in the Johor Straits as at Oct 25 and Dec 6 last year respectively–ending months of diplomatic tensions that strained their neighbourly ties.
This comes just before Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s scheduled meeting with prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the 9th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat.
The return to the 2018 lines followed a mutual agreement for the temporary suspension of the overlapping port limits as announced in a March 14 joint conference in Putrajaya by foreign affairs minister Saifuddin Abdullah and his Singapore counterpart Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.
“This suspension is pursuant to one of the five recommendations in the report of the working group on maritime issues surrounding the overlapping Johor Bahru Port Limits off Tanjung Piai and Singapore Port Limits off Tuas, which were agreed upon by the foreign ministers of Singapore and Malaysia on March 14, 2019, to de-escalate the situation on the ground and pave the way for maritime boundary delimitation,” the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore said in a statement posted on the Singapore government website.
The return to the 2018 limits means both countries agree to temporarily suspend all commercial activities in the area including fishing, refrain from anchoring government vessels in the area, and agree to operate in the area in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over the limits of Johor Bahru’s port limits off Tanjung Piai and the port limits off Tuas has been a long-standing issue dating as far back as 1979.
Matters came to a head on October 25 last year when the attorney general’s chambers published a document through the federal government gazette that displayed Tanjung Piai’s limits with a significant eastward extension.
In response on Dec 6, Singapore extended Tuas’ limits. Its transport minister said the island republic will not hesitate to take “firm action’” to protect its territory and sovereignty.
Both countries also deployed naval vessels to the disputed waters, with Singapore sending at least one armed littoral mission vessel to stake its claim.
Deal Reached to End Air Dispute
Malaysia and Singapore have also agreed that in the spirit of bilateral cooperation, Singapore will withdraw the instrument landing system (ILS) procedures for Seletar Airport while Malaysia will indefinitely suspend its permanent restricted area (RA) over Pasir Gudang.
This agreement was outlined in a joint statement issued by Malaysian transport minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook and his Singaporean counterpart Khaw Boon Wan.
“This agreement was implemented by the civil aviation authorities of both countries on April 5. “With this agreement, the transport ministers look forward to Malaysian carrier Firefly commencement of flights to Seletar Airport effective April this year,’’ it said.
Both transport ministers also noted that a high-level committee has been set up to review the operational letter of agreement between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore area control centres concerning Singapore arrivals, departures and overflights 1974, the airspace in southern Peninsular Malaysia has been managed by Singapore.
The statement added that both Loke and Khaw welcomed these positive steps and look forward to further strengthening bilateral cooperation.
The air disagreement first surfaced on Nov 23, when Firefly said it would suspend all flights to Singapore from Dec 1, the day it was supposed to move its operations from Changi to Seletar Airport.
Malaysia objected to the new landing procedures for Seletar, claiming they would impose height restrictions and affect development in Pasir Gudang.
On Dec 25, Malaysia established a permanent RA for the purpose of military activities over Pasir Gudang. This means that flights from any country, including from Malaysia, would need prior approval from the Royal Malaysian Air Force to operate in that zone between 2,000 and 5,000 feet.
Malaysia had objected to the use of the instrument landing system at Seletar airport because aircraft guided by the system would violate Malaysian airspace. The airport is just 2km from Pasir Gudang in Johor.
Malaysia Ready to Control Its Airspace
Meanwhile, Malaysia is ready and well prepared to take back control of its airspace, which has been delegated, to Singapore since 1974, said Anthony Loke. He said it was Malaysia’s sovereign right to manage its own airspace.
He said after 45 years of delegating that airspace to Singapore, it was high time for Malaysia to review the agreement. “We are prepared in terms of technical readiness. We have invested over the years a lot of money on technical equipment and air traffic control readiness.
“We are building the new KL ATCC (Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control Centre) in Sepang, and with the equipment and expertise we think we are ready to manage our own airspace. “That’s why reviewing the 1974 agreement is our top priority,” Loke told a joint press conference with his Singaporean counterpart Khaw Boon Wan.
The two ministers had a bilateral meeting at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, ahead of the Malaysian-Singapore leaders’ annual retreat in Putrajaya on April 9.
Loke also said Firefly would resume flying into Singapore on April 21, following Singapore’s withdrawal of its ILS procedures for Seletar Airport. He said besides Firefly, the other interested airline was Malindo, which had already applied to airport authorities in Singapore to fly to Seletar.
Firefly had suspended its operations to Singapore on Dec 1 last year, following Malaysia’s protest of the ILS procedures for Seletar Airport.On the six-month suspension of the rapid transit system (RTS) Link, which connects Johor Baru to Woodlands in Singapore via rail, Loke said both governments are working to review the proposed passenger fare. Malaysia had requested a six-month suspension of the RTS Link project to review certain terms of the agreement.