Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that the Republic extended its Port Limits off Tuas with effect from Thursday (6 December) in response to Malaysia’s “blatant” maritime provocations in recent weeks.
Speaking at a media conference in Parliament House on Thursday, Khaw gave an update on the bilateral maritime spat following Malaysia’s arbitrary extension of the Johor Bahru Port Limits, as well as a recap on Malaysia’s maritime territorial claims over the decades. It was the first time since 1997 that Singapore has amended its port limits.
The 65-year-old minister revealed that there have been 14 intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore’s territorial waters between 24 November and 5 December. In particular, three vessels had come in and out of Singapore’s maritime boundaries while the closest intrusion was about a kilometre from the Singapore mainland.
Khaw said that the Republic’s security agencies will continue to patrol the area and respond to any unauthorised activities, adding that they have exercised restraint against “aggressive actions” by the Malaysian vessels.
The minister told reporters, “We have been extremely restrained, but I think we have a job to do.”
“But Singapore cannot allow our sovereignty to be violated, or new facts on the grounds to be created. Therefore, if it becomes necessary, we will not hesitate to take firm actions against intrusions and unauthorised activities in our waters to protect our territory and sovereignty,” he said, without elaborating on the scope of firm actions.
When asked by Yahoo News Singapore if he expects more intrusions from the Malaysian side, Khaw said, “I hope not. That’s why my main message today (is): leave our waters, while we pursue sit-down dialogues and (try and) find a result.”
Decades-old territorial dispute
Recapping Malaysia’s territorial claims over the decades, Khaw highlighted that Malaysia first published a map in 1979 that included its claim on Pedra Branca as well as on areas at the eastern and western approaches to Singapore. Malaysia’s claim of the new boundary lines at the western approach intruded into the port limits of Singapore, the minister said.
Singapore protested to Malaysia to reject its claim on Pedra Branca and stated categorically that the new boundary lines violated Singapore’s sovereignty. But in 1987, Malaysia went ahead to publish the Johor Bahru Port Limits that followed the claimed boundary lines, making slight adjustments in 1999. These stayed fully within what Malaysia had since 1979 claimed was their territorial boundaries.
On 25 October 2018, Malaysia issued a Federal Government Gazette that “unilaterally and arbitrarily extended the Johor Bahru Port Limits”, a move that “goes beyond what even Malaysia itself claimed as its territorial waters,” said Khaw.
He stressed, “Without any prior consultations, Malaysia is seeking to alter unilaterally the long-standing status quo in the area.”
Khaw also noted that Putrajaya had proposed that officials from both sides meet to work towards an amicable resolution. “Singapore naturally agrees to this and will follow up,” said Khaw, stressing that the dispute must be resolved in accordance with international law and practice.
Asked why the full details of the territorial dispute were not revealed earlier, Khaw said that the Singapore government had been “working quietly” in the hope that “good sense” would prevail. He added that it was not uncommon for neighbouring countries to have maritime boundaries that are not clearly defined, citing Singapore’s naval borders with Indonesia as an example.
As to whether the dispute might be resolved via third-party arbitration, the Minister said the preference was to settle it bilaterally.
“The aggressions (by the Malaysian vessels) are clear: they should not be there…leave our waters, go back to the status quo.”