‘MALAYSIA-Singapore relations are built on the principle of friendship among equals. Malaysia’s approach to mitigating bilateral problems is guided by the need to maintain and enhance regional cooperation, prosperity, peace and security. With such a diplomatic framework, no disputes are beyond solutions.’ -- Datuk Dr Ruhanie Ahmad (NSTP Archive)

MALAYSIA-Singapore relations are built on the principle of friendship among equals. Malaysia’s approach to mitigating bilateral problems is guided by the need to maintain and enhance regional cooperation, prosperity, peace and security. With such a diplomatic framework, no disputes are beyond solutions.

Let us examine the history of the current Malaysia-Singapore dispute. According to press reports, the maritime controversy “started with the declaration by Malaysia, published in the Federal Gazette, of an alteration to the Johor Baru port limits”. This gazette extended the Johor port limits, but “without consulting Singapore”.

Hence, “Singapore extended its own port limits, overlapping into the new Johor port limits as claimed by Malaysia”. But, “the gazetted expansion of Singapore’s port limits —which overlap Malaysia’s unilateral extension of the Johor Baru port limits — is well within Singapore’s territorial waters”.

The media also mentioned that “details of the intrusions into Singapore’s maritime borders were revealed hours after Transport Minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook took issue with Singapore’s plan to use the southern Johor Baru airspace for flight operations at Seletar Airport”.

This is puzzling. How and why had Singapore issued details of Malaysia’s alleged intrusions, only hours after Malaysia raised the issue on Singapore’s plan to use the southern Johor Baru airspace? What were its driving factors, what were its ultimate goals?

While the above are still mysterious, it is impertinent to accuse Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as “using Singapore as a bogeyman as a form of distraction from Malaysia’s domestic troubles”. Malaysia has no domestic problems and needs nothing as a diversion.

It is equally unethical to describe the alleged intrusion as “a blatant provocation”. Malaysia is a disciplined state actor. It abhors unscrupulous acts.

Also, stop saying “Malaysia will be (held) responsible for any untoward situations on the ground that arise from continued deployment of its vessels into this area”. Malaysia does not initiate any problem in the so-called Singapore’s sovereign region. Hence it is undiplomatic to load whatever onus on Malaysia.

But Singapore must acknowledge that Malaysia uses its wisdom in exercising its relative power in the international system. Malaysia knows why, when and how to use this power, and for what goals.

Malaysia also has the right to object “to Singapore’s use of the Instrument Landing System (ILS) and ILS Approach Procedures for its Seletar Airport”. This infringed on “Malaysia’s sovereignty as they affected developments and shipping operations in Johor’s Pasir Gudang port”.

Similarly, don’t use the “threat” that Singapore “will not hesitate to
take firm action against intrusions and unauthorised activities”; and avoid creating perceptions that Malaysian vessels refused to leave the alleged Singapore maritime zone because of Malaysia’s belligerent attitude.

It was because Malaysia had suggested that both sides “cease and desist” sending assets to the disputed area, pending discussions on outstanding maritime boundary issues”. Since it was rejected, it is wise for Dr Mahathir to say, “Malaysian vessels will stay put in the disputed waters along the Malaysia-Singapore maritime border until the negotiation process is settled”.

More importantly, Singapore has to know that Dr Mahathir is a statesman who has mastered bilateral relations, foreign policy priorities and security management strategies. He has a clear vision on peace, prosperity and security at the domestic, regional and global levels. He does not lead Malaysia for regime interest or personal gain.

He is also a truth-seeker. This is why he said, Malaysia “is prepared to conduct a survey on the maritime border of Malaysia and Singapore to see if it is true that Malaysian ships are intruding into the waters of the republic”. This is also the reason that he suggested “differences between Malaysia and Singapore over their maritime boundaries will be addressed based on legal provisions and rights”.

However, Malaysia and Singapore should be aware that legal provisions might not always be able to resolve complicated maritime disputes. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has no effective solution for complications. This is evident in the South China Sea disputes because negotiations involving sovereignty would continuously be contested.

As such, several analysts claimed that UNCLOS is only a regulatory instrument, not a legal framework to resolve maritime disputes.

However, maritime disputes could be settled through agreement and cooperation. “Several encouraging maritime agreements have been achieved, including boundary agreements between Indonesia and Singapore (1973; 2009) and between Thailand and Malaysia (1979) [Clive Schofield (2013) in Increasingly contested waters?].

“The South China Sea also hosts multiple maritime joint development agreements and cooperative arrangements of a practical nature, including between Malaysia and Thailand (implemented from 1990) concerning seabed energy resources; and between Malaysia and Vietnam, also related to seabed hydrocarbons exploration and development in 1992”.

As such, is it impossible for the above mechanisms to be adopted as alternative approaches in resolving the current Malaysia-Singapore disputes, based on the principle of interdependency? “In zero-sum interdependence, your loss is my gain and vice-versa. In a positive-sum situation, we both gain.” [Joseph S. Nye Jr (2009), Understanding International Conflict].

Hence, when Malaysian and Singaporean officials meet in January, it is worthwhile to examine the above spirit of “positive-sum” interdependency, as their initial basis for a mutual constructive joint agreement or cooperation.

The writer is a former member of parliament for Parit Sulong, Johor (1990-2004)