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Reclamation at Tuas has nothing to do with maritime boundary dispute, says Khaw

SINGAPORE — Calling on Malaysia to stop the intrusion of vessels into Singapore’s territorial waters before things get out of hand, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan dismissed Malaysia’s argument that Singapore cannot claim the disputed waters on the basis of its reclamation works in Tuas in recent years.

Reclamation at Tuas has nothing to do with maritime boundary dispute, says Khaw

At a press conference on Dec 6, 2018, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan showed five maps which traced Malaysia’s claims to its territorial waters near Southern Johor.

SINGAPORE — Calling on Malaysia to stop the intrusion of vessels into Singapore’s territorial waters before things get out of hand, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan dismissed Malaysia’s argument that Singapore cannot claim the disputed waters on the basis of its reclamation works in Tuas in recent years.

Reclamation, which started in 1996, should not come into the picture at all, Mr Khaw said on Thursday (Dec 6) at a press conference. For the last 20 years, the Johor Baru port limits had not changed until recently on Oct 25, when Malaysia decided to unilaterally expand the boundaries into Singapore’s territory.

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Three Malaysian government vessels were in Singapore’s waters at the time of the press conference, and when asked by reporters what the Government will do if they do not leave, Mr Khaw said that security agencies are there to sound off warnings while exercising restraint.

“So, the next best step for them is to leave our waters. It’s as simple as that,” he added. “Why must we pursue a destructive path? Beggar thy neighbour — what for?”

Since 1999, Singapore has been exercising its jurisdiction in the waters covered by the recent extension of the Johor port limits, Mr Khaw said. Defence forces have been patrolling the area regularly “and protested any intrusions or unauthorised activities”, he added.

Malaysia, he noted, has “never laid claim to these waters, or protested our actions there”.

“Now, out of the blue, Malaysia is claiming these territorial waters that belong to Singapore. Without any prior consultations, Malaysia is seeking to alter unilaterally the long-standing status quo in the area.”

At the half-hour press conference, Mr Khaw showed five maps which traced Malaysia’s claims to its territorial waters near Southern Johor.

In 1979, Malaysia published a map claiming Pedra Branca as theirs, and created new maritime boundary lines near the eastern and western waters off Tuas.

At that time, there was no reclamation at Tuas, Mr Khaw highlighted.

The new western maritime boundary line had intruded into Singapore’s port limits, but Singapore was not consulted about it.

Each country declares its own port limits, but these have to be within its territories and not in another country's waters. Port limits inform ships on the territories they pass and where they are allowed to do bunkering, among other things.

Singapore protested at the time and rejected its neighbour’s claim on Pedra Branca and the new maritime boundaries, labelling the actions as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

The situation remained as such and was “never resolved”, Mr Khaw said.

Then, in 1987, Malaysia published its Johor port limits based on those boundary lines. In 1999, it made slight amendments to the port limits. The limits stayed within what Malaysia had claimed was its territorial waters.

So, for 20 years since 1999, the Johor port limits had remained that way, Mr Khaw said.

Details of the intrusions into Singapore’s maritime borders were revealed earlier on Tuesday by Mr Khaw, hours after Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke took issue with Singapore’s plan to use the southern Johor Baru airspace for flight operations at Seletar Airport.

Mr Loke said then that Singapore’s plan infringed Malaysia’s sovereignty and it has already issued two protest notes to the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia, pertaining to the disputes over airspace and maritime boundaries.

On Wednesday, Mr Loke followed up by saying that Malaysia has always had and continues to have sovereignty over the waters within the Johor port limits.

He also said that Singapore's land reclamation in the area in recent years “does not extend a state's basepoints and/or baselines”.

When asked why the port intrusions were not made known earlier and only after Malaysia expressed outrage over the airspace issue, Mr Khaw said: “We were, of course, working quietly, hoping that good sense will prevail, and then we will be able to resolve the issue.”

Singapore had also put out several notes of protests and met its counterparts to come to an amicable solution, he added.

EXERCISING RESTRAINT

At the press conference, a video from the Defence Ministry was screened, showing naval officers from RSS Independence engaging with a Malaysian government vessel that was passing by during these few days.

A naval officer said through a phone: “May I know your intention? You’re passing me very close.”

The Malaysian vessel responded by blaring its horn.

Throughout the video, which was more than two minutes long, there was no audio response from the Malaysian vessels, which were spotted in Singapore’s waters in the last few days, in the day and at night.

Mr Khaw said that the Malaysian vessels came near to those from Singapore, and the closest distance between them was about 1km.

However, the security agencies “know what to do” in such instances, and he stressed repeatedly that they will exercise restraint.

“Hopefully, good sense will prevail. But if necessary, we have to be, and we will be, firmer.”

THE UNFINISHED BUSINESS

In late October, Malaysia published a government gazette, extending its Johor port limits without consulting Singapore. In the weeks that followed, it issued a port circular and a mariners note to inform the shipping community about its new port boundaries.

In retaliation, Singapore extended its own port limits, overlapping into the new Johor port limits as claimed by Malaysia. Mr Khaw said that this gazetted extension, which took effect on Thursday, is “well within” Singapore’s waters.

On the significance of adjusting Singapore’s port limits, Mr Khaw said that it is “not unusual” for countries to do so. In Singapore’s case, it proceeded based on international law and “certainly (did) not infringe our neighbours’ rights”.

As for why Singapore did not gazette its maritime borders near Southern Johor back in 1979, Mr Khaw said that it was not because the Government failed to do so.

The process is such that a country has to negotiate with its neighbours, come to an agreement on the boundaries and then publish its territories.

There are many countries where the boundaries are not fully defined. “It’s quite common. Such a process takes a long time,” he added.

He reiterated that the Malaysians did not consult Singapore back in 1979 when it published its maritime boundaries. Singapore disagreed with that move, and continue to disagree with it.

“Until you sit down and settle, it’s unsettled,” Mr Khaw said.

TAKING OPTIMISTIC APPROACH

Three times during the press conference, Mr Khaw expressed hope that “good sense will prevail”. In dealing with complex bilateral issues, there should be optimism in resolving them as was the case when Singapore had to settle complications arising from the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail project, he added.

“Looking forward, I always take the optimistic approach.”

On whether Singapore will resort to using arbitration or a third party to find a solution, Mr Khaw said that there is a need to solve the issue bilaterally first.

“Key point is, let’s do it professionally, do it with mutual respect and hope good sense will prevail.”

On Wednesday, Malaysia’s foreign affairs ministry proposed a meeting between the countries’ foreign ministers to discuss the maritime boundary dispute.

It said that both countries value good and strong bilateral relations, and noted that “it is important to avoid any acts which may lead to escalation and fuel tension”.

Political observers previously told TODAY that recent contentious issues such as water prices and a "crooked" Causeway bridge — which arose after Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad and his Pakatan Harapan government took power in May — confirmed the Malaysian leader’s continued frosty attitude towards Singapore.

Once again, Singapore is used as a bogeyman as a form of distraction from Malaysia’s domestic troubles, they noted.

Asked whether such repeated tactic is a concern, Mr Khaw only replied: “I hope not.”

He called for a win-win outcome as “there are so many things we can achieve together”.

“It benefits our people, it benefits our rakyat (people in Malay). Isn’t that a much better future? And it’s possible, it’s possible. So, I’m optimistic.”

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