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Looking at the maritime dispute from a Malaysian perspective

Hoo Chiew Ping, Bernama
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | The recent maritime dispute between Malaysia and Singapore has perhaps come as a surprise to many of the citizens of both countries.

The fact is that both countries continue to have unresolved maritime border issues. This recent round of tension was apparently triggered by the Federal Government Gazette P.U (B) 587: Declaration of Alteration of Port Limits for Johor Bahru Port, which was published in early October.

The Singapore government protested, believing that the extended port limits of Johor Bahru Port has encroached upon Singapore territorial waters. These waters, however, have never been recognised by Malaysian government as Singapore territorial waters.

In early December, Singapore reacted strongly against Malaysian government vessels that were present in these disputed waters.

The dispute has resulted in the use of rather emotive terms by Singapore officials and pro-government media, such as “intrusion”, “invasion of territorial waters”, and “violations of Singapore’s sovereignty”.

A popular theory going around in Singapore is that the Pakatan Harapan government has poor political support from the Malays, and it instigated this recent round of tension as a way to divert attention and to mobilise support.

However, this theory does not hold up to scrutiny.

If the Pakatan Harapan government wishes to drum up the issue and mobilise political support, one could expect that its ministers and officials will use strong terms to rally for the cause, but this has not been the case.

While Singapore’s pro-government media have been publishing the dispute as headlines and issuing strong pro-government editorials, the Malaysian media have refrained from doing so.

Malaysia, therefore, is not really interested in picking a fight with Singapore. Malaysian vessels in the disputed waters have operated in a very professional manner and showed no kind of aggression.

Malaysia only wishes to protect and advance its rightful interests in accordance with the international law. For years, many arrangements between Malaysia and Singapore have put Malaysia at a disadvantage.

The very low tariff on the water supplied by Johor to Singapore is a case in point, in which the Malaysian government's effort to renegotiate with a more reasonable and fair tariff was met with strong resistance from Singapore.

The other case is the most recent decision by the Singapore government to use the Instrumental Landing System on its Seletar Airport, which could severely affect the economic development of Pasir Gudang.

Singapore was free to do as it wishes without giving much regard to the interests of Malaysia because of an arrangement that gave Singapore control over air traffic in southern Johor.

Malay hinterland

A longer historical perspective is proper here. Malaysia and Singapore were borne out of British colonialism. The British colonial government implemented policies and arrangements that privileged Singapore rather than the Malay heartland. It built up Singapore as a first-class port city, but neglected the Malay hinterland.

This pattern of privileged arrangement for Singapore somehow survived after the end of colonialism and even until today. Malaysia, under the Harapan government, only wishes to reverse this pattern; to put its act together and work toward becoming a modern and high-income nation and to emulate the remarkable achievements made by Singapore.

This is by no means a threat to Singapore. Malaysia is willing to cooperate and collaborate with Singapore while renegotiating back what is rightfully its rights and interests.

In the recent round of maritime tension, it can be seen that while Malaysia’s government is firm in its standing, it is also calm, confident and modest, avoiding the use of nationalistic and emotive terms that will create an even more difficult situation.

Singapore should be encouraged by the positive outcome from a recent breakthrough between Malaysia and Indonesia over two longstanding maritime disputes, after 13 years of negotiations.

Malaysia-Singapore ties are unusual in many ways. Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965 remained one of the few cases of peaceful secession in modern history. After the separation, the peoples on both sides of the Straits of Johor continue to have a very robust cultural and economic relationship.

The recent disputes between the governments will not change that. The trading of accusations between the nationalistic netizens of both countries will not change that too.

There is too much to be lost if the Malaysia-Singapore relationship deteriorates to the point of crisis. At the moment both sides are exploring diplomatic ways to contain the dispute. In the long run, however, only fairer arrangements between Malaysia and Singapore can make bilateral relations more sustainable.


HOO CHIEW-PING is senior lecturer in the Strategic Studies and International Relations Programme at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. 

The views expressed here are her opinion and are not reflective of Bernama's stand on the matter.

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