Malaysia’s intensifying tiff with Singapore over air and sea borders has entered a very modern battleground – a duelling campaign of videos, with government departments from both sides releasing content in a bid to shore up their positions with their domestic constituencies.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport yesterday released a 95-second video on its Facebook page, which at the time of writing has more than 300,000 views, detailing its grievances with the new Instrument Landing System (ILS) at Seletar Airport.
“Hi Singapore, Seletar Airport is yours, but Pasir Gudang, Johor, Malaysia is ours. So please hear us out. To Malaysians, please watch and share this – there are reasons why Malaysia has to oppose the ILS of the Seletar Airport which Singapore wants to implement from January 3, 2019,” said Transport Minister Anthony Loke in the video.
Malaysia is against Singapore’s plan to use a radar system that would require planes landing in its secondary civilian airport, Seletar, to make their landing approach over Malaysia’s southernmost tip in the state of Johor. It says the plan was only recently conveyed to Loke and will inconvenience businesses and residents in Johor as well as limit its industrial development.
Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan later told reporters Malaysia was using a “technical excuse” to change the airspace agreement which was brokered in 1973 and there were “a few inaccuracies” in the video’s depiction of ILS.
But Khaw acknowledged Malaysia had taken steps to descalate tensions over the maritime border issue by withdrawing several state vessels from the disputed area although one ship remained. This vessel’s presence created “unnecessary risks” and could lead to “accidental escalation on the ground”, he warned, according to a report in The Straits Times.
Last week on December 6, the Singapore government released footage by its Ministry of Defence purportedly showing Malaysian government vessels encroaching into Singapore waters. It insisted on the immediate withdrawal of these vessels.
Subsequently, Singaporean parliamentary speaker Tan Chuan-jin posted a video on his personal page, along with a post exhorting Singaporeans to stand united.
“This may go on for some time,” he wrote, adding that attempts had been made to review and talk matters over with Malaysia. The video has been viewed almost 600,000 times.
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Malaysia-Singapore relations expert Mustafa Izzuddin of Singaporean think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said the newly minted Malaysian government was “still in campaign mode to sway local public opinion when they interact with or respond to Singapore. We can expect this to continue playing out on social media platforms in the current political tug of war between Malaysia and Singapore.”
However, top foreign policy analyst Shahriman Lockman of Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic & International Studies said the current Malaysian government was “simply more forthright in pursuing the national interest” whereas the previous government was more amenable to compromise.
“Malaysia needed to respond to the Singapore Transport Minister’s assertion that the flight path to Seletar has existed for decades, suggesting that Malaysia’s protest is new. It is obvious that the ILS is far from new,” he said.
“If Singapore insists on sticking to the legalities and saying that it is technically entitled to determine the ILS, then it will just validate what Malaysia has always thought of Singapore diplomacy: that if you accidentally spill your coins on the floor, they’ll fight you for it.”
The ILS is safer for planes to use in low-visibility conditions because of its precise approach. When the disagreement over the system became public last week, Singapore released correspondence proving bilateral discussions regarding the plan stretched back to December 2017, including communications after the Pakatan Harapan coalition toppled former incumbents Barisan Nasional in May.
In the video, Lok pointed out that if the ILS were to come into use, Johor’s Pasir Gudang Port would be unable to erect high buildings or even use cranes as the system institutes mandatory height restrictions in the airport’s surrounding areas.
“We can’t even build tall buildings in Pasir Gudang if we allow that flight path,” Loke said in a post accompanying the video. He added that pilots on their way to Singapore previously manoeuvred around obstacles in their way.
In a separate statement later, he said the “unnecessary” tensions could be avoided if the ILS procedures were implemented for the southern-side Runway 3, instead of Runway 21 which is on the contentious northern side.
This, he said, would not have any additional impact on other airspace users, residents or businesses in Singapore.
Netizens from both sides of the Causeway commenting on the Malaysian Transport Ministry’s video slung barbs at each other on Facebook.
“Bravo Anthony Loke that should be the way. Firm and stern when [we] have a kiasu neighbour,” read one comment, using a Hokkien phrase meaning “scared to lose”. Meanwhile, a Singaporean Facebooker asked Loke: “Did you check your mailbox only one year later? Or the video to explain your inaccurate assessment took one year to produce?”
A Malaysian commenter quickly pointed out that Loke had not been a minister the previous year, as he only took office after the May general elections.
Another Singaporean commenter urged his countrymen to “cool it”. “Make YB Loke angry for what? He can also determine whether we can pump petrol in [border Malaysian state Johor Baru] and how much. What happens if he imposes fuel surcharge on us? What do Singaporeans gain from ILS in Seletar? Don’t get, don’t get lor,” he wrote.
Some Malaysians taunted Singaporeans by asking them to cross the border and “learn to eat chewing gum”, a sweet treat famously banned in the island republic to limit public littering.
Although Singapore previously enjoyed unprecedented friendly ties with Malaysia during now-disgraced former premier Najib Razak’s reign, the return of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to office has seen the relationship turn decidedly more hawkish.
The opposition is maintaining a similar tone, as former transport and defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein took a hard line on the dispute.
“This is no longer a verbal war with Singapore,” he said. “This is about standing ground for Malaysia as the government … stop the rhetoric and just do it.”
Mahathir’s first stint as leader, from 1981 to 2003, was punctuated with squabbles over air, land and sea with the nation’s southern neighbour, which was expelled from the Malaysian Federation in 1965.