Malaysia-Singapore spat — it’ll blow over in a month, say analysts

The 2 neighbours must soften their rhetoric and take a more diplomatic approach and negotiate a solution, UM’s Kamal says


As the latest spat between Malaysia and Singapore — concerning disputes over air and sea limits — lingers in its second week, analysts see only a downside to prolonging it.

It is better to resolve the disputes using diplomatic channels, they said, rather than allowing it to play out in the open.

Some say the two neighbours will be allowing room for third parties to take advantage of the current situation.

Universiti Malaya (UM) Adjunct Professor Tan Sri Dr Kamal Mat Salih said the two countries must soften their rhetoric and take a more diplomatic approach and negotiate a solution.

Kamal said there is also concern that the latest dispute may have been blown out of proportions because of inexperienced ministers in the new government elected in May.

They haven’t had the time to develop relations with their Singapore counterparts to have private chats where much of diplomacy is conducted, he said.

“I worry if any third party is taking advantage of the new government because they are new into this kind of game.

“Outsiders may take advantage of this dispute which could affect our international relations. I hope this is not the case this time,” Kamal said.

The latest dispute between Malaysia and Singapore concerns claims over sovereignty rights in the grey areas separating the two countries.

Last week, Transport Ministry Anthony Loke Siew Fook announced Malaysia’s intention to reclaim Malaysian airspace that has been delegated to Singapore since 1974. This came soon after Singapore unilaterally registered new pathways to accommodate flights to its secondary airport at Seletar.

A Google map overview of the disputed land spat. Singapore claims that vessels from the MMEA and Marine Department Malaysia had repeatedly intruded into the Tuas water space (Source: Google Map)

Malaysia said the new pathways intrudes into Malaysia’s airspace over Pasir Gudang and were registered without its agreement.

Loke said Malaysia has issued a diplomatic note to Singapore about its disagreement.

In what is seen as a retaliation, Singapore then issued a statement that Malaysia’s recent extension of the limits of the Johor Baru Port has encroached into Singapore territorial waters.

Incidentally, the area Singapore is claiming is near the areas where it has aggressively reclaimed from the Tebrau Straits.

Singapore also warned that it would enforce its territorial rights including using its navy and coast guard against any Malaysian vessels.

Singapore claimed that vessels from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and Marine Department Malaysia had repeatedly intruded into the Tuas water space.

Putrajaya has dismissed Singapore’s encroachment claims and pointed out that it is within Malaysia’s rights to draw the limits.

Malaysia has also accused its neighbour of carrying out extensive land reclamation of the area.

Malaysia and Singapore have had their share of neighbourly squabbles in the five decades since they parted ways in the 60s, not least when Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was running Malaysia from 1981 to 2003.

UM’s Kamal said during his first term, Dr Mahathir had the advantage of having an experienced Cabinet to weather any disputes with its neighbour, so he is confident that the prime minister would also be able to guide Malaysia out of this latest situation without further escalation.

“ During his first tenure as prime minister, Dr Mahathir also did not take direct action. He chose to negotiate first, as in the case of Tanjong Pagar land. This time, perhaps the diplomacy approach would be much better,” he said.

Political analyst Oh Ei Sun said, based on historical pattern — this matter would be resolved within a month.

He said both parties have little to gain by prolonging any provocation and everything could be resolved when they sit down together.

“It is a typical pattern — a public announcement of violation of sovereignty by countries, followed by intensive bilateral negotiations, failing which it would be a mutual submission for arbitration or adjudication,” he said.

He does not think that the matter will escalate enough to jeopardise engagements over other issues between the two governments, including Malaysia’s supply of water to Singapore and the “crooked” bridge to replace the Johor Causeway.

Economist Dr Rajah Rasiah also concurred that the current matter would not lead to other further confrontation.

“I doubt the issue will lead to another confrontation as both sides are aware of the stakes involved. I do believe both parties would gradually come to the table and resolve this amicably,” he said.