While Singapore naval forces can compel intruding Malaysian government vessels to leave the waters off Tuas, they have been ordered for now to “exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions”, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Tuesday (15 January).
Responding to a parliamentary question on whether steps have been taken to prevent further incursions by Malaysians ships into the Republic’s territorial waters, Dr Ng told the House that security agencies were being held back “so as not to jeopardise the conditions necessary for constructive discussions and peaceful resolution of the dispute”.
“Since December 3 when intrusions by Malaysian government vessels began, our security personnel have repeatedly pressed these vessels to withdraw from STW Tuas. We will continue to do so as the presence of these vessels does not strengthen Malaysia’s legal claims in any way.”
The 60-year-old noted that the Republic has been exercising jurisdiction in Singapore territorial waters off Tuas, or STW Tuas, without any protest from Malaysia until October 25 last year. “The Police Coast Guard (PCG), Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and Maritime Port Authority (MPA) will therefore continue to protect and assert sovereignty over STW Tuas and the waters within Singapore port limits,” added Dr Ng.
Tensions have erupted between Singapore and Malaysia following what the former sees as Malaysia’s arbitrary extension of the Johor Bahru Port Limits in 2018. Since then, there have been repeated intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into STW Tuas. In response to what Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan called a “blatant provocation”, the Republic has also responded by extending its own Port Limits.
In December, Malaysia pledged to take measures to de-escalate tensions on the ground. And last Tuesday, following a meeting between Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah in Singapore, the duo agreed to establish a working group of officials from both sides.
The group will study the issues in the maritime dispute and issue its report to the ministers within two months.
‘Provocative’ incursion by Johor MB
Dr Ng also alluded to a publicised visit by the Johor Menteri Besar made to a Malaysian vessel anchored in Singapore waters off Tuas just a day after the two foreign ministers met. “This intrusion…undermined the goodwill and trust that is necessary for further cooperation between the two countries,” said Dr Balakrishnan on Monday.
The Defence Minister called the MB’s visit “provocative” as the number of Malaysian government vessels in STW Tuas “sharply increased” from two to five. He stressed, “Tensions and real risks increased during this incident.”
“Our PCG and RSN vessels responded promptly to this provocation, as they had to. As a result, the total number of vessels in the area more than doubled. These provocations do nothing to help solve or resolve disputes, and indeed can precipitate incidents on the ground.”