This week, the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Singapore held an anticipated meeting to help defuse renewed disputes over their air and maritime boundaries that had rocked relations late last year. The effort represented just the latest effort of de-escalation by both sides on the issue as they seek to recalibrate their wider bilateral relationship into 2019.
As I have observed previously in these pages, Malaysia and Singapore, neighboring states that were in fact unified during a brief period from 1963 to 1965 following a separation, have long had a rather prickly relationship. Despite some significant improvements in ties over the past few years, old, unresolved problems, including on boundary issues, still tend to arise in ties from time to time in part due to domestic politics.
Late last year, disputes re-emerged over air and maritime boundaries, specifically around Malaysia’s announced extension of the limits of the port of Johor Bahru back in October, which was rejected by Singapore, and Malaysia’s protests on the publication of Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures for Seletar Airport.
As I noted then, those disputes were viewed partly from the perspective of both countries attempting to recalibrate their wider relationship amid domestic political changes, with Malaysia’s government under returning Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looking to shape its foreign policy following a shock election win last year and Singapore preparing for a gradual transition away from current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (See: “Why Are Border Disputes Rocking Malaysia-Singapore Ties After Mahathir’s Return?“).
Since then, while both sides have continued to express concerns about lingering disputes from their own perspectives, they have also reiterated a commitment to dialogue and have been working to manage these issues. Conversations and meetings have continued to take place between the two sides over the past few weeks, with an example being the meeting between Mahathir and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.
This week, the disputes were in the headlines again as the foreign ministers from both sides met for a prearranged bilateral meeting. On January 8, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah led their delegations in Singapore for talks on these disputes, which had been in the works since last year.
Following the talks, both sides announced what amounted to interim de-escalatory measures. With respect to the air, both sides agreed that Malaysia would immediately suspend its permanent restricted area in the airspace over Pasir Gudang, while Singapore would suspend its implementation of the ILS procedures for Seletar Airport. The interim arrangement would be in place initially for a month, while meetings continue between the two sides, including by their transport ministers.
On maritime disputes relating to the port limits of Malaysia and Singapore, the two countries agreed to establish a working group to study and discuss the issue further. The working group, which is to be led by the heads of both countries’ foreign ministries, is expected to report to the foreign ministers within two months.
To be sure, these efforts represent only interim de-escalatory steps as both sides seek to manage these prickly issues. But given the state of tensions in ties late last year, such steps are no doubt welcome for the time being as the two countries work out their differences and minimize the risk of further escalation or conflict. Beyond the specifics of these issues themselves, 2019 will also offer further insights as to how both sides are managing the wider bilateral relationship amid other priorities they have both at home as well as abroad.