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Why the Singapore-Malaysia maritime and airspace disputes matter

SINGAPORE — It has been just seven months since Dr Mahathir Mohamad led the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to a shock victory at Malaysia’s May 9 polls.

A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel engaging a Malaysian government vessel in the sea off Tuas View Extension at around 3pm on Thursday, December 6, 2018.

A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel engaging a Malaysian government vessel in the sea off Tuas View Extension at around 3pm on Thursday, December 6, 2018.

SINGAPORE — It has been just seven months since Dr Mahathir Mohamad led the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to a shock victory at Malaysia’s May 9 polls.

But the period has been marked by several run-ins between Dr Mahathir’s new government and Singapore — with the latest being the disputes over airspace and territorial waters.

Observers have noted that several issues — such as water prices and the “crooked bridge” — were Dr Mahathir’s pet topics, during his first stint as Malaysia’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003.

Writing on Facebook on Wednesday (Dec 5), former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted that it is “not an accident that so many old bilateral issues” have resurfaced following Malaysia’s change of government.

“The new governing coalition is intrinsically unstable and held together by a 93-year-old man,” said Mr Kausikan, referring to Dr Mahathir. Mr Kausikan was formerly the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now chairs the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute. “Political uncertainty in Malaysia inevitably leads to Singapore being used as a bogeyman to hold things together,” he added.


High-Speed Rail project: Uncertainty had plagued the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project since Malaysia’s PH government took power. The project was inked between Singapore and Malaysia’s then Barisan Nasional government in December 2016.

Weeks after winning the elections, the PH leaders initially wanted to scrap the project to trim the country’s massive debt. But they shifted position, and suggested it to be postponed.

Both Singapore and Malaysia finally came to an agreement on Sept 5 to defer the project to May 31, 2020, with Malaysia paying abortive costs to Singapore by next January.


>> KL-Singapore HSR project officially deferred to May 2020

Water Prices: Shortly after he became prime minister for the second time, Dr Mahathir revived the old dispute. Among other things, he said water prices sold to Singapore should be raised by at least 10 times. But Singapore has pointed out that the 1962 Water Agreement was guaranteed by both nations in the 1965 Separation Agreement.

Weighing in on the issue, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that both countries have to “proceed strictly in accordance with its terms”. Following Dr Mahathir’s first official state visit to Singapore in November, both leaders expressed willingness to discuss the issue further.


Mahathir revives water dispute with Singapore, calls 1962 deal 'ridiculous'

Dr M says Singapore should pay at least 10 times more for Malaysian water

Singapore and Malaysia must follow terms of water and HSR agreements, says PM Lee

Singapore, Malaysia willing to have more talks about water agreement


Crooked Bridge: Dr Mahathir first mooted in 2000 to replace the Causeway with a new bridge, saying that it would improve traffic flow and allow ships to cross the Straits of Johor.

Singapore said that the project was unnecessary since the Causeway was in a good state. Despite the Republic's disagreement, Malaysia wanted to go ahead and construct what became known as a "crooked bridge" on its side of the Causeway. But Mr Abdullah Badawi, Dr Mahathir's successor, scrapped the plan in 2006.

In October this year, Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian revived calls for the crooked bridge, saying he had proposed it to Dr Mahathir.

In response, Singapore said that it had not received any official proposal from Malaysia. Nevertheless, Dr Mahathir has publicly backed the project’s revival.


Johor wants crooked bridge to Singapore revived

Putrajaya can recoup ‘crooked bridge’ spending, insists Mahathir


Maritime Borders: In October, Malaysia unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits, prompting Singapore’s Ministry of Transport to protest the move which it said violates the Republic's sovereignty and international law.

Despite Singapore’s protests, Malaysian vessels have repeatedly intruded the Republic’s territorial waters off Tuas in the last two weeks.


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


Southern Johor Airspace: Malaysia has protested against Singapore’s plan to use the southern Johor Baru airspace for flight operations at Seletar Airport. It also wants to reclaim the airspace.

Malaysia has claimed that Singapore had issued — without Malaysia’s consent — new Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures for Seletar Airport to be enforced on Jan 3.

It also claimed that the ILS — which requires planes to fly over Southern Johor — will hamper development in the Johor town of Pasir Gudang.

In response, Singapore has pointed out that the procedures were aligned with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and in line with existing flight profiles into Seletar Airport, which have been used for decades.


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



If there was ever any doubt, the incidents over the past months have confirmed that Dr Mahathir’s frosty attitude towards Singapore remains, several observers said.

Traditionally, Singapore has been the “punching bag” for Malaysian leaders when they face domestic pressure. And things are no different this time, said political scientist Bilveer Singh from the National University of Singapore.

The new Malaysian PH government is struggling to deliver its campaign promises, and has had to deal with infighting within the coalition. Racial tensions have also been reignited following a riot at an Indian temple last month. The “honeymoon period” for the PH government is over and the “realities are hitting home”, said Assoc Prof Singh.

On the recent run-ins between Malaysia and Singapore, he added: “This is more ‘Mahathirian’ than a Malaysian (approach).”

While there were differences between the two countries under Malaysia’s former premiers Abdullah and Najib Razak, these were handled more amicably.

“But under Mahathir, be it during his first and second era, it is back to brinkmanship, pressure and barbed diplomacy,” Assoc Prof Singh noted.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the latest disputes indicate that bilateral relations under the new Mahathir government will not be as smooth-sailing as they were under the Najib administration. “Diplomatic turbulence is anticipated… It also signifies that Singapore will be made even more of a convenient bogeyman should there be rising domestic unrest within Malaysia,” he said. 

Diplomatic efforts would also have to be stepped up to “de-escalate bilateral flashpoints so as to ensure that Malaysia-Singapore relations remain on an even keel”, he noted. 

Mr Devadas Krishnadas, a chief executive of Future-Moves Group, an international strategic consultancy and executive education provider, described the “provocations and brinkmanship practices” as a “back-to-the-future experience” of dealing with Dr Mahathir.

These would pose as tests to Singapore’s fourth-generation leadership, he said.

While diplomacy and rule of law should “always be the preferred channels of discourse”, he reiterated that Singapore “must always stand firm on principle and be prepared to protect its interests”.

“Showing weakness through appeasement will only encourage the pressure for more concessions in the future,” said Mr Devadas.

“And Singaporeans need to rally behind its Government. This is not a matter of abstract or arcane policy, but of safeguarding our sovereignty and defending against real existential impediments to our economy.”

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