In tit-for-tat, Singapore extends its port limits

The gazette for the extension of the Singapore Port Limits off Tuas takes effect today. (AFP pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Singapore today warned that it would not hesitate to take firm actions against “intrusions” by Malaysian vessels into its waters.

And in a tit-for-tat move, the island republic said it had decided to extend the Singapore Port Limits off Tuas.

This extension, it said, was well within Singapore’s territorial waters and that the gazette took effect today. The extension tracks the eastern boundary of the 1999 Johor Bahru Port Limits.

Singapore Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan said while the country upheld international law and respected bilateral agreements, “we will protect and defend Singapore’s territorial sovereignty”.

Khaw’s statement comes in the wake of heightened tensions between the two neighbours over claims of territorial intrusions. Putrajaya has complained of airspace intrusion while Singapore has complained of sea intrusions.

Khaw said the recent extension of the Johor Bahru port limits was a “blatant provocation and a serious violation of our sovereignty and international law”.

He said Singapore was open to Putrajaya’s suggestion for discussions on the matter but insisted that Malaysian government vessels should “cease their intrusions and return to the status quo before Oct 25”.

Tracing the history of the territorial waters issue, Khaw said Malaysia had, in 1979, published a map showing the limits of “the territorial waters which it claimed”.

He said despite protestations that this intruded into Singapore territory, Malaysia, in 1987, went on to publish Johor Bahru Port Limits that followed “this claimed boundary line”. In 1999, he said, Malaysia made slight amendments to these port limits.

“Since then, for 20 years, the 1999 Johor Bahru Port Limits have remained intact. Both the 1987 and the 1999 Johor Bahru Port Limits stayed fully within what Malaysia had since 1979 claimed was their territorial boundary.

“But on Oct 25, 2018, Malaysia issued Federal Government Gazette P.U. (B) 587 ‘Declaration of Alteration of Port Limits for Johor Bahru Port’. This unilaterally and arbitrarily extended the Johor Bahru Port Limits. Quite apart from the fact that Singapore has never accepted their 1979 territorial claims, the recent purported extension of the Johor Bahru Port Limits goes beyond what even Malaysia itself claimed as its territorial waters.”

Khaw said since 1999, Singapore had been exercising its jurisdiction in the waters now covered by the recent extension of the Johor Bahru Port Limits.

“We have been patrolling the area regularly, and protested any intrusions or unauthorised activities. Malaysia has never laid claim to these waters, or protested our actions there. Now, out of the blue, Malaysia is claiming these territorial waters that belong to Singapore. Without any prior consultation, Malaysia is seeking to alter unilaterally the long-standing status quo in the area.”

On Nov 5, Singapore issued a diplomatic note requesting that Malaysia immediately amend the federal government gazette “to reflect the sovereignty of Singapore over the waters” and on Nov 9, Khaw raised this issue with his Malaysian counterpart Loke Siew Fook in Bangkok.

But, despite Singapore’s protests, Khaw said, the Marine Department of Malaysia published a circular on Nov 11 and a notice to mariners on Nov 22 notifying them of the expanded Johor Bahru Port Limits.

Singapore then issued another diplomatic protest.

Khaw said: “Malaysian government vessels have since been continually intruding into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas. So far there have been 14 intrusions.

“Yesterday, Malaysia issued a media statement arguing that Singapore cannot claim the area as its territorial waters on the basis of its reclamation works in Tuas in recent years.

“In 1979, when Malaysia published its map, it did not consult Singapore before drawing its territorial claim line. In fact, in 1979 no reclamation at Tuas had taken place. So the Malaysian unilateral territorial claim of 1979 (which we do not recognise) could not possibly have taken into account any reclamation by Singapore.

“Their new Johor Bahru Port Limits extend beyond Malaysia’s own territorial claim line, and Malaysian ships have crossed this line to enter Singapore waters.”

Putrajaya also disagreed that the altered Johor Port Limits had encroached into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas, and emphasised that Malaysian government vessels were patrolling the territorial waters of Malaysia.

“Malaysia’s reply also proposed that officials from the two sides meet to work towards an amicable resolution. Singapore naturally agrees to this and will follow up. It has always been our view, ever since Malaysia published its first map in 1979, that the boundary line in this area can only be settled in accordance with international law and practice, through consultations between the governments involved.

“Meanwhile, Malaysian government vessels should cease their intrusions and return to the status quo before Oct 25.”

“Our security agencies will continue to patrol the area, and respond to unauthorised activities on the ground. They have so far responded with restraint against aggressive actions by the Malaysian government vessels.

“But Singapore cannot allow our sovereignty to be violated, or new facts on the ground to be created. Therefore, if it becomes necessary, we will not hesitate to take firm actions against intrusions and unauthorised activities in our waters to protect our territory and sovereignty.”

Khaw said countries could amend their port limits but they must do so in a way that did not contravene international law, or infringe on the sovereignty of another country.

He added: “In view of these recent provocative developments, we have decided to extend the Singapore Port Limits off Tuas via Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (Port Limits) (Amendment) Notification 2018. This extension is well within Singapore territorial waters, and tracks the eastern boundary of the 1999 Johor Bahru Port Limits. The gazette takes effect from today.”

The last time Singapore amended its port limits was in 1997.

Khaw said, however, that Singapore wanted friendly relations and close cooperation with Malaysia.

He said he was “very saddened” by the recent development, noting that Singapore had “worked out an alternative way to allow Malaysia to defer the High Speed Rail Project in the spirit of bilateral cooperation”.