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Singapore warns citizens to avoid Kuala Lumpur, where security concerns prompt postponement of rally

  • A pro-human rights rally has been moved to avoid a clash with a celebration of Malaysia’s decision not to sign a UN anti-discrimination convention
  • The Lion City has issued a rare travel advisory for the capital of its northern neighbour, with which it is embroiled in disputes over air and sea boundaries
PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2018, 6:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2018, 9:14am

Malaysian officials breathed a sigh of relief on Friday after the organisers behind one of two opposing rallies slated for this weekend postponed their event, allaying fears about potential clashes among rival participants.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), citing advice from the police, said it would move an event planned for Saturday to Sunday, to avoid a clash with a rally organised by the opposition coalition linked to the deposed former prime minister Najib Razak.

The development followed a rare move by neighbouring Singapore, embroiled with its northern neighbour in disputes over air and sea boundaries, to issue a travel advisory for citizens.

Cross borders: Malaysia and Singapore continue to dispute air and sea boundaries

The country’s foreign ministry cited security concerns over the two rallies, which were to be held just 10km apart.

The Suhakam event, a commemoration of human rights that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was slated to attend, was only expected to garner a crowd of about 3,000 people and was meant to be a family-friendly event.

In contrast, the opposition event – organised to celebrate the government’s climbdown on ratifying an international convention on eliminating racial discrimination – had caused temperatures to soar because of its sectarian undertone.

Organisers – including key opposition leaders from the race-based United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and its hardline Islamist partner PAS – had portrayed the event as a show of force against what they claimed was an erosion of rights for the country’s Malay majority.

The Mahathir administration late last month backed down on signing the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), after protests from Umno and PAS, which also claimed ratifying it could spark race riots in Malaysia.

The opposition has also demanded that no remaining human rights treaties be signed, including those related to banning torture and allowing for religious and political freedoms. In Malaysia, apostasy is illegal for Muslims.

Meanwhile, Singapore has issued an advisory to its citizens advising they defer non-essential travel to Kuala Lumpur because of the rallies.

The country’s foreign ministry noted that the two events originally scheduled for Saturday would attract large crowds, which it said raised the “possibility that limited and isolated skirmishes might take place.”

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The statement also warned Singaporeans living in Kuala Lumpur to remain vigilant and avoid any large gatherings.

Mustafa Izzuddin, an expert in Singapore-Malaysia ties from Singaporean think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said while it was not unusual for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue travel advisories for the benefit of Singaporeans, it was “hard not to connect the travel advisory to the ongoing bilateral turbulence in Malaysia-Singapore relations”, although it could be purely coincidental.

“The travel advisory is meant to err on the side of caution because the safety and security of Singaporeans travelling abroad and in this case Kuala Lumpur are paramount, not least because of skirmishes that could take place as a result of two highly spirited opposing rallies,” he said.

Friday’s developments came as the usually congenial ties between the two nations took a sour turn, when air and sea boundary disputes – points of contention in the 1980s and 1990s – resurfaced.

Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke on Tuesday announced the country was looking to take back sections of Singapore-controlled airspace.

He also criticised the new radar system at Singapore’s Selatar Airport, saying it would require planes to make their approach over the southern Malaysian state of Johor, jeopardising a seaport there.

Singapore, meanwhile, said it had lodged a strong protest with the Malaysian administration over its decision to extend a Johor port’s boundaries into Singaporean territorial waters, saying that this impinged on Singapore’s sovereignty.

It also said Malaysian enforcement agency vessels had “intruded” into Singaporean waters, warning it would not hesitate to take firm action as Malaysia’s actions were not conducive to good bilateral ties.

Political observers suggested the recent bristling could stem from a Mahathir effect, as the leader has historically been hawkish towards the small city state which was once part of Malaysia.

New quarrels, old scars: Mahathir’s Malaysia and Singapore dispute air and sea boundaries

As both nations continued to express their desire for an amicable end to the jostling, Malaysia’s foreign affairs minister Saifuddin Abdullah issued a statement late on Friday revealing a proposal to Singapore for both sides to not send vessels into the disputed area from midnight on Saturday.

Doing so would not prejudice either side’s claim, he said.

Malaysia had also proposed to Singapore an agenda for a meeting to resolve their maritime boundary issues, Saifuddin added, and the government hoped this could be convened in the middle of this month.

There was no immediate response from Singapore to the Malaysian statement.