Tension across the Causeway

DECEMBER 9 ― Over the past few weeks, Malaysian authorities have issued new directives altering/extending the limits of Johor's port. Singapore claims that this extension now puts Johor’s port limits well within Singapore's territorial waters.

While Singapore has contested the new boundaries, Malaysian ships have been sailing in the waters without authorisation from the Singapore side.

This has led to the Singapore Navy issuing warnings to the vessels and Singapore’s Transport and Defence ministries stating that the Malaysian ships have violated Singapore’s sovereignty. 

This is now a true international dispute.

Then the two neighbours ― described as “twins” by Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad just days earlier ― began to battle over airspace.

Aviation authorities in Singapore have been revising landing guidelines and flight paths in anticipation of more regular flights landing at the Seletar airport (not Singapore’s regular Changi airport).

However, flights paths to Seletar go directly over Johor/southern Malaysia and Malaysian authorities have complained that Singapore’s revised flights paths will prevent development and restrict ship movements in key industrial areas in Johor Bahru.

To make matters more confusing, Singapore’s air traffic controllers have in fact controlled the airspace over the southern tip of Johor since the 1970s.

Singapore’s aviation authorities received the concession as it allowed the large number of flights heading to Changi to fly over southern Malaysia to deal with just the Singapore flight control and aviation authorities. 

But as the two sides struggled to agree on landing guidelines and flight paths to Seletar, Malaysia said it would take back control of the airspace in southern Johor. 

The Malaysian government has cited sovereignty as its motivation. Singapore authorities have responded saying the current arrangement has proved to be safe and effective and that minor changes in flight paths can be worked out within the existing framework without such a major change. 

Fundamentally at least from this side of the Causeway it looks like in both cases, Malaysia is looking to change the status quo in ways that will put Singapore at a disadvantage.  

Aviation and ports are the cornerstones of our economy and any threat to these is a near existential threat to Singapore.

The issues at play are very complex and technical (flights paths etc).  Singapore itself also revised its port limits on December 6, expanding its maritime claims. 

Malaysia, meanwhile, maintains that Singapore has eaten into its own territorial waters through relentless land reclamation.

As for the Johor overflight rights granted Singapore in the 1970s, Malaysia can argue this was a generous concession in the first place. 

In terms of the big picture though, Malaysia is over 400 times larger than Singapore which means a tiny shift in territorial waters for the federation can make a huge difference to us. 

To me, the entire incident is extremely disappointing.  We are now talking about incursions and repercussions; the rhetoric of the two Koreas. 

I think most humans on both sides of the Causeway had hoped the days of sabre rattling were a memory and it's quite tragic to see them return. 

It is also fundamentally humiliating. We are supposed to be relatively advanced nations. Our relations are underpinned by years of diplomacy and cross border trade ― but we are now chasing each other’s ships around? 

I mean we are stiflingly close neighbours at times, but you don’t see Belgium and the Netherlands bristling at each other like this.

There are ways and means two civilised neighbours can resolve these issues without the tough talk, the drama and the Facebook spats.

What’s crucial is that both nations recognise this. Now is not the time to start flaming each other on online platforms. We don’t need outpourings of nationalism and voices to start grand standing etc.

We just want this fixed as quickly and smoothly as possible and we want a mechanism in place so this sort of disruption doesn’t occur again.

At the end of the day, Singapore and Malaysia have never played a zero-sum game. We win and have always won through co-operation and respect.

The smooth movement of people, opportunities and ideas between our nations is the topmost priority and every disruption to this movement causes losses on both sides. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.