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Malaysia

After a year that ended with bitter quarrels, Malaysia and Singapore search for a relationship reset

  • The two countries’ foreign ministers met in the Lion City on Tuesday, agreeing to concessions and backing down from their prior hardline positions
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 9:33pm

Singapore and Malaysia sought to steady their bilateral relationship on Tuesday following an unusually frosty year’s end in which the normally friendly neighbours went public with a quarrel over air and sea boundaries.

The two countries’ foreign ministers met in the Lion City where they agreed to a number of concessions and lauded the progress they had made, saying in a joint statement that they welcomed “the positive steps that both sides had agreed, to move these matters forward in a calm and constructive manner”.

Malaysia and Singapore’s war of words enters a very modern battleground

The conciliatory tone struck by Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah was a far cry from the acerbic barbs the two sides were trading in December after they abruptly decided to take their disputes public – unwinding years of relatively balmy ties.

In the air, Malaysia has griped that Singapore unilaterally decided to implement a new radar system at its secondary civilian airport of Seletar that required planes to make their landing approach over Malaysia’ southern state of Johor – thereby inconveniencing residents and limiting industrial development.

Singapore, meanwhile, has complained that its larger neighbour impugned its sovereignty by extending the limits of a seaport well into waters the island republic had long patrolled and deemed its own.

Neither side accepted the other’s protestations last year and the two increasingly appeared to be coming to an impasse, but following Tuesday’s meeting a way forward seems to have been found.

In regards to the maritime dispute, the foreign ministers said a “working group” had been set up comprising diplomatic officials from both sides who would work to “de-escalate” the situation and produce a report in two months.

On the question of airspace, meanwhile, Singapore has walked back its earlier announcement to push ahead with the implementation of its Instrument Landing System (ILS) radar as soon as possible, agreeing instead to suspend all operations for a month.

New quarrels, old scars: negative neighbours dispute air and sea boundaries

Malaysia, which had responded by declaring the affected area a restricted military training zone, has similarly backed down by lifting restrictions for a month.

In the meantime, the foreign ministers said their respective transport ministers will meet soon to discuss the issue.

Tuesday’s detente-of-sorts follows overtures from Singapore late last month in a bid to calm tensions.

First, the republic’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dispatched his deputy Teo Chee Hean and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to Malaysia to meet Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on New Year’s Eve.

Then, in his New Year message to citizens, the Singapore leader said the city state would manage issues with Malaysia “calmly and constructively”.

There is a widespread belief among Singapore’s pundits and analysts that the current downturn in relations with Malaysia has much to do with Mahathir – the 93-year-old second-time prime minister who defeated the scandal-tainted former leader Najib Razak in last year’s elections – as ties were largely stable during Najib’s nine years in power.

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

Some in Malaysia say this is because the former premier was too soft on Singapore while Mahathir, on the other hand, makes little pretence of his hawkish view of the city state, and often clashed with the republic’s leaders over myriad issues during his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

In an official visit to the Lion City last year, the elder statesman likened the two countries – which split acrimoniously in 1965 – to twins.

“Malaysia and Singapore are like twins in a way, except that perhaps the elder twin is a little bit bigger than the younger twin and a little bit older,” Mahathir said.