Singapore, Malaysia crawling towards a better relationship

MARCH 17 — Singapore and Malaysia agreed on something. These days, that counts as news. 

Last week, it was announced that the two governments would suspend (but not withdraw) the extensions of port limits that brought them into conflict.

In October 2018, Malaysia extended the limits of the Johor Port — basically claiming the right to administer a larger portion of sea area.

Singapore claimed this extension was unilateral and illegal. 

In December 2018, Singapore extended the limits it claimed under the Tuas port and planning area, bringing the two sides into clear conflict. 

Both countries were effectively claiming the same area of sea. 

With neither side backing down, the situation escalated. In December and January we saw scenes of Singapore coast guard vessels moving to intercept and confront Malaysian government vessels Singapore claimed were trespassing in its waters. 

Such open tension and confrontation on our borders is nearly unprecedented.

The suspension of the two extensions will hopefully put an end to such scenes and open the door for negotiations and a final settlement to the maritime border issue. 

Both sides have also said that while they will initially look to negotiate directly, they are prepared to use third party arbitration — referring the matter to an external dispute resolution committee.

In the interim, the disputed area will be treated as international waters with government vessels staying clear of the area.

It's not a major breakthrough but it is real progress. The fact that the two governments were able to de-escalate the conflict is encouraging.

The maritime port boundary is one of three major issues that bedevil Singapore-Malaysia relations. The other two being the matter of air space control over the southern tip of Johor and the long-running water dispute. 

In terms of airspace, Singapore air traffic controllers have long directed flight paths over the southern edge of Malaysia. Malaysia has sought to review this agreement and regain control of all overflight. 

The perennial issue of water pertains to the 1962 Water Agreement which allows Singapore to draw up to 250 million gallons a day from the Johor River — paying 3 Malaysian sen per gallon for the water. Malaysia claims the rate paid by Singapore is outdated and needs to be renegotiated. 

To me, all of these disputes are really facets of our extreme proximity, interdependency and shared history.

Singapore controls landing rights over southern Malaysia because it is practical given the massive volume of flights using that corridor to reach Changi airport.

We share water because water-scarce Singapore has drawn water from Johor since at least the 1920s.

Basically our spats are due to our interconnected nature and a full detangling of our interests is not possible.

The reality is that Singapore and Malaysia will and should always see enormous flows of trade, people and resources and in that context disputes are inevitable. 

These developments have to be managed within the framework of a close and positive relationship. 

It was announced last week that foreign ministry officials from both sides will sit on a joint committee to supervise the port issue. It also appears that the attorney generals of Singapore and Malaysia will work together to resolve the water issue.

These are good signs. To manage this crucial relationship, an unprecedented level of government to government engagement is needed. 

It's more than simply having embassies and diplomats in each other's territories. Because we are so connected, what we need are joint committees and mechanisms with both sides sitting together working towards common objectives and communicating near constantly. 

There really is no place in our relationship for unilateral decisions where they impact the other. 

This is a mutual responsibility for both governments and both peoples should hold their politicians to account; we should never see anything like the Janury-December coast guard clashes again.  

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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