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Singapore protests as Malaysia expands port limits, vessels intrude territorial waters off Tuas

SINGAPORE — The Singapore Government is strongly protesting Malaysia’s purported move to extend port limits, which violates sovereignty and international laws, and it will not hesitate to “take firm action against intrusions and unauthorised activities”.

Singapore protests as Malaysia expands port limits, vessels intrude territorial waters off Tuas

Trucks carry sand at land reclamation area overlooking Singapore's Tuas industrial area. In its statement, the Ministry of Transport expressed "grave concern" over Malaysia's move to expand the Johor port limits, which encroach into Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas.

SINGAPORE — The Singapore Government is strongly protesting Malaysia’s purported move to expand its port boundaries, which violates sovereignty and international laws, and it will not hesitate to “take firm action against intrusions and unauthorised activities”.

This is after ships and vessels from Malaysia have been repeatedly intruding into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas over the past two weeks, including vessels from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Department Malaysia.

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These details were disclosed on Tuesday (Dec 4) by Singapore's Ministry of Transport (MOT), hours after Malaysia's Transport Minister Anthony Loke said that his country will “immediately” issue a protest note over Singapore's plan to use the southern Johor Baru airspace for flight operations at Seletar Airport.

In spite of the public exchange of words, Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan repeatedly expressed hope that “good sense will prevail” in relation to both issues, and stressed the need for both countries to cooperate for a “win-win outcome”.

Mr Khaw was speaking to reporters at Seletar Airport after a media briefing.

On concerns that the issues might escalate and strain ties between both countries, Mr Khaw said: “I certainly hope not. It's certainly not conducive for bilateral relations. We have so many things that we want to work together. The potential to do much more is huge.”

MALAYSIA ‘ESCALATED’ ITS ACTION: KHAW

Mr Khaw noted that he had met Mr Loke on three occasions this year to discuss cross-border transport issues — most recently on Nov 8 on the sidelines of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Transport Ministers Meeting in Thailand’s capital of Bangkok.

Mr Khaw said that at the meeting, he had raised the issue of airspace management involving Seletar Airport, as well as the port limits expansion and incursions into Singapore’s territorial waters.

He told Mr Loke that Singapore has issued a note of protest over the port limits. In response, Mr Loke attributed the decision to Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, which will issue a reply to the Republic, said Mr Khaw.

While Singapore waited for a response “which did not come, they (Malaysia) escalated the actions”, Mr Khaw pointed out.

Malaysia unilaterally issued more documents — port circular and mariners note — to inform the shipping community about its new port boundaries, Mr Khaw added.

In response, Singapore issued a second diplomatic note, protesting the move and asking Malaysia to immediately amend its gazette to take into account the Republic’s sovereignty concerns.

The Maritime Port Authority of Singapore also issued its own port marine circular on Nov 30, "instructing ship masters and owners of vessels to disregard" Malaysia's government gazette.

INCURSIONS INTO SINGAPORE’S WATERS

In the meantime, several vessels from the Malaysian government agencies have repeatedly intruded into Singapore’s waters.  The Republic has also lodged a protest to its neighbour over this.

TODAY has reached out to Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, and sent separate queries to Singapore’s MOT on why the protest notes and incidents were not made public earlier.

Nevertheless, MOT said the Republic of Singapore Navy and the Police Coast Guard are safeguarding the sovereignty of the country’s territorial waters round the clock.
“Singapore will not hesitate to take firm action against intrusions and unauthorised activities in our waters,” the ministry added.

Mr Khaw reiterated that the extension of the port limits and the incursions are “clearly violations of our sovereignty and international law".

“We hope that good sense will prevail because if you carry on like this, it’s certainly not conducive for good, bilateral relationship. There’s much we can gain – win-win – from working together,” said Mr Khaw, citing the perennial Causeway traffic jam as a “notable example” of what both countries can work on if they “sit down together”.

THE UNRAVELLING

Singaporeans and Malaysians had little inkling on what was to come when Malaysian budget airline Firefly abruptly announced on Nov 22 that it will suspend all flights into Singapore from this month, due to unresolved issues over the relocation of its operations from Changi Airport to Seletar Airport.

The next day, the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) tried to link the relocation to “outstanding airspace issues to be discussed, particularly on reviewing the terms and conditions of delegation of Malaysia’s airspace to Singapore for the provision of Air Traffic Services”.

In response, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) revealed that the budget airline has not been given the green light from Malaysian authorities for the move. It also reiterated that the airspace issues are not related to the relocation.
 
Things came to a head on Tuesday, when Mr Loke told the Malaysian Parliament that the country will send a protest note to Singapore.
 
Mr Loke claimed that Singapore had on Dec 1 issued — without Malaysia’s consent — new Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures for the Seletar Airport to be enforced on Jan 3.

On its part, the Malaysian government had conveyed its decision not to allow Singapore to “operationalise” its ILS on Nov 28 and 29, Mr Loke said. TODAY understands that the Malaysians have communicated their protest verbally during the meetings with CAAS on those dates.

The ILS — contained in Singapore’s Aeronautical Information Publication — provides precision lateral and vertical guidance to an aircraft approaching and landing on a runway.

As the Seletar airport is just 2km away from the Johor Baru border, Mr Loke claimed that the ILS would affect development in the Johor Baru town of Pasir Gudang.

There would be height restrictions imposed on buildings and other infrastructure, and it would also affect shipping activities at the Pasir Gudang port, he added.

Mr Loke’s claims were rebutted by Singapore’s MOT.

Among other things, the ministry pointed out that CAAS had shared the ILS procedures with their Malaysian counterparts back in December last year.

Despite “repeated reminders”, the MOT said that it received “no substantive response” from CAAM until late last month.

The ILS procedures were designed in line with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), said the MOT. They are also aligned with “existing flight profiles into Seletar Airport, which have been used for decades”.

The procedures have also been designed to take into account Pasir Gudang’s existing structures. As such, there will not be additional impact on businesses and residents in Johor.

Likewise, the procedures would not affect shipping on the Straits of Johor, or other users of the airspace, the MOT said.

Weighing in, Mr Khaw pointed out that airspace management has “nothing to do with sovereignty”.

Countries such as United States, Canada and France have their airspace or part of their airspace managed by others, he added.

Airspace management is “very much about safety and about efficiency”, he stressed.

The ILS procedures enhance flight safety especially when there is low visibility, he noted.

The MOT said that arrangements for Singapore to manage the Southern Johor airspace were approved by the ICAO, following consultation with Malaysia and other regional countries.

A bilateral agreement was signed in 1974 to enforce the arrangement. Under it, the provision of air traffic services in the airspace over Southern Johor was delegated to Singapore, the MOT said.

MANY STAKEHOLDERS ‘COULD BE AFFECTED’

Mr Loke said his government will start the “first phase” of reclaiming its airspace at the end of next year. The subsequent stage will begin in 2023, he added.

Mr Khaw said such a proposal will “affect many stakeholders”, given that the airspace is “probably one of the most complex” in the world with an ever-increasing number of flights.

“You cannot just unilaterally decide. You have to sit down and consult,” Mr Khaw added.

Under ICAO procedures, any changes to the management of airspace ought to reflect an improvement in safety and efficiency.

Mr Khaw questioned “what is the point of changing” if there would not be any improvements.

The process could take several years: Malaysia must first outline plans to address potential safety and security concerns. Thereafter, it has to consult other regional countries and airlines.

Mr Khaw also took the opportunity to spell out his approach in dealing with complex bilateral issues: Cooperation is preferred — as in the case of complications arising from the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail project.

“In cross border transport, if you cooperate, you can do a lot of things together,” said Mr Khaw. “And my belief is in cooperation, even though we can continue to compete, whether in tourism or investment or even logistics.”

Over the years, Singapore has faced claims for airspace from not only Malaysia, but Indonesia as well. As recent as last year, Indonesia said it wants to take back control from Singapore of the Flight Information Region (FIR) over the Riau Islands, citing the issue of sovereignty.

But the Singapore Government has clarified that the FIR is not about sovereignty. Instead, it is based on operational and technical considerations to provide effective air traffic control services.

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