PETALING JAYA: Putrajaya wants to de-escalate tensions with Singapore and will not fight fire with fire, Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong said today.
“Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah have already stated Malaysia’s position, we want to de-escalate the situation,” he said.
Liew said although former defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein wanted the defence ministry to speak out against what was happening and to back the foreign ministry, “we don’t want to fight fire with fire, we want to de-escalate the situation”.
He was referring to an earlier Facebook post by Hishammuddin who urged for a stronger stand against Singapore over the territorial dispute in the waters off Johor.
The former minister, saying the Singapore Cabinet had fully supported the Singapore foreign ministry in its statements regarding the maritime boundary issues, asked why Malaysia’s defence ministry remained silent.
Liew said his ministry did not want to go down the route of a verbal war with Singapore. “We are not going to try and win in making verbal comments. I don’t want to enter into a verbal confrontation with Singapore.”
He said there was already a timeframe set for negotiations, as stated by the foreign ministers of both countries.
“We are not preparing for elections. There is no interest in increasing the tempo,” Liew said after a forum on Malaysia’s 14th general election at Sunway University.
The maritime dispute between the two countries was sparked by the extension of the Johor Bahru Port Limits in October. Singapore claimed this was done unilaterally and that Malaysian government vessels had begun intruding into Singapore waters.
After a series of diplomatic exchanges, Singapore extended its port limits off Tuas and said it would “not hesitate to take firm actions” against intrusions.
Malaysia then proposed that both sides de-escalate tensions and sit down for discussions and Singapore has agreed.
On the matter of local elections, Liew said the decision to forego local elections was not a U-turn, as it had not been in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto.
“Our local authorities are currently very big,” he said, adding some were bigger than a few state governments.
He gave as examples councils in Selangor: Shah Alam, Petaling Jaya, Ampang, Kajang, and Subang Jaya.
“These are huge councils, with a budget three or four times that of the Perlis state government, almost equal to that of the Kedah state government.
“So if you have such a big council with a small state government, once we have local council elections you won’t need the state government any longer.
“We need to restructure the three-tier government and then go for local council elections with very small councils.”
“In the long run, we should encourage more local democracy,” he said, adding that this could even include elections for village development and safety committees.
Recently, the prime minister said there were no plans to bring back local council elections, citing concerns of racial conflicts.
Referring to the differences between the urban and rural demographics, he said local council elections might produce the “wrong results”.