SINGAPORE, Dec 31 ― An encapsulation of several events in the year 2019 has shown that bilateral relations between Malaysia and Singapore, under the Pakatan Harapan administration, is dynamic and strong amidst outstanding bilateral issues that need to be resolved.
In the spirit of cooperation, a series of negotiations are ongoing between the two countries, with progress seen in some issues.
Separated by about 1km by the Johor Causeway, Malaysia and Singapore are working closely to resolve several matters such as those pertaining to the airspace and the maritime as well as the1962 Water Agreement.
Under the Pakatan Harapan government, the new administration has also relooked at two rail transport projects connecting Singapore and Johor Baru via the Rapid Transit System (RTS) and Singapore-Kuala Lumpur via the High Speed Rail (HSR), with the aim of reducing the costs.
The strong bond is evident when Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad accepted the invitation of his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong to attend the Bicentennial National Day Parade on August 9, 2019.
Wisma Putra said the visit of Dr Mahathir symbolised the close link between the two countries as both enjoy 54 years of diplomatic ties and have maintained good relations as closest neighbours as well as partners in Asean.
Dr Mahathir was also here for a two-day official visit in November 2018, joining nine other heads of government for the 33rd Asean Summit.
Lee, meanwhile, was in Putrajaya in April 2019 for discussions under the framework of the 9th Malaysia-Singapore Leaders’ Retreat.
Lee visited Malaysia on May 19, 2018, to personally congratulate Dr Mahathir soon after the latter was sworn in as Prime Minister.
There was good progress related to the RTS as Malaysia has decided to proceed with the cross-border project with proposals to amend it and reduce its costs by 36 per cent.
It was announced by Dr Mahathir on October 31, 2019 while he was in Johor.
With the proposed changes, the total cost of the 4km rail project will cost about RM3.16 billion instead of RM4.93 billion.
As for the fate of HSR, it will be known by the end of May 2020.
On September 5, 2018, Singapore has agreed to suspend the construction of the project until the end of May 2020 with legal documents signed in Putrajaya to vary the HSR Bilateral Agreement based on the new understanding.
Minister of Economic Affairs Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali had said the agreement signed “clearly stated our commitment to continue the project after May 2020.”
During the Retreat in Putrajaya, Dr Mahathir said Malaysia is planning to take back its delegated airspace from Singapore in stages and aimed to do this within the time frame starting from the end of this year (2019) to 2023.
Stressing that the two countries have a “long history of aviation cooperation”, Dr Mahathir said Malaysia made significant investments in preparations to take back the said delegated airspace and hoped it could be done expeditiously.
On a separate occasion, the disagreement pertaining to airspace surfaced on November 23 last year when Firefly said it will suspend all flights to Singapore from December 1, 2018 ― the day it was supposed to move its operations from Changi to Seletar Airport.
Malaysia objected to the new landing procedures for Seletar Airport, claiming that it would impose height restrictions which will affect developments in Pasir Gudang.
However, on April 6, 2019, Malaysia and Singapore agreed that in the spirit of bilateral cooperation, Singapore will withdraw the instrument landing system (ILS) procedures for Seletar Airport.
Subsequently, Firefly resumed its flights to Singapore from April 21, 2019.
Malaysia believed it was important to delimit all outstanding maritime boundaries between the two countries, and not only to delimit the area surrounding the Johor Bahru Port Limits off Tanjung Piai and Singapore Port Limits off Tuas.
On April 8, 2019, Malaysia and Singapore mutually suspended the implementation of their overlapping port limits and applied their port limits in effect prior to Oct 25, 2018, and Dec 6, 2018, respectively.
The suspension is pursuant to one of the five recommendations in the report of the Working Group on Maritime Issues surrounding the overlapping of both port limits, which were agreed upon by the Foreign Ministers of Singapore and Malaysia on March 14, 2019.
It is aimed to de-escalate the situation on the ground and pave the way for maritime boundary delimitation.
Both leaders also looked forward to the convening of the 8th Meeting of the Malaysia-Singapore Joint Technical Committee on the Implementation of the International Court of Justice Judgment on Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge to resolve outstanding bilateral maritime boundary delimitation issues in the area.
1962 water agreement
Singapore is seen to have started opening up for discussions although its position was that Malaysia has lost its right to review the price under the water agreement.
During their first bilateral meeting in Singapore on November 12, 2018, the 1962 water agreement was one of the “controversial” matters in the past that was raised by Dr Mahathir.
“I thought I have to state our stand on it. I think, by and large, he (Lee) was quite accommodating. He listened to my views and I think he is much open to discuss these things than before before they just rejected all efforts at renegotiating,” he said.
During the Retreat, the two leaders then agreed that their respective attorney-generals (AGs) will meet in November to understand each other's legal position on the right to review.
Malaysia regards the resolving of the longstanding issue of the water price review as a priority and had engaged in active negotiations on the review in the late 90s and early 2000s.
The 1962 Johore River Water Agreement, which expires in 2061, requires Malaysia to supply Singapore with 250 million gallons of raw water per day at three sen per 1,000 gallons.
Malaysia then purchases a portion of the treated water at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons. ― Bernama