Maritime dispute: Mahathir says will negotiate with Singapore, but no decision on removing Malaysian vessels
SINGAPORE: Malaysia will negotiate with Singapore regarding the ongoing maritime dispute between the two countries, but no decision has been made about removing Malaysian vessels, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday (Dec 10).
"We will negotiate with Singapore," Malaysia's Dr Mahathir told reporters after a visit to the Institute of Integrity in Kuala Lumpur.
"We don’t want to fight with Singapore - sometimes there are overlapping claims, we can resolve through negotiations," he said, speaking in Malay.
These negotiations will begin as soon as possible, and will be handled by "foreign affairs", said Dr Mahathir in English.
When asked whether there would be an attempt to withdraw the Malaysian government vessels in the disputed area, Dr Mahathir said that there was no decision.
"At the moment because there is no decision, the vessels are there," he said. "Singapore vessels are there, Malaysian vessels are there."
Separately, Malaysia's foreign affairs ministry on Monday issued a statement saying it would take "all effective measures to de-escalate the situation on the ground".
However, the Malaysian government "is unable to accede" to Singapore's "counter-proposal" of a return to the status quo prior to Oct 25, 2018, it said.
Malaysia had on Friday proposed a meeting with Singapore in mid-December to discuss the maritime boundary issues between the two countries, along with a cease-and-desist proposal, which Singapore has rejected.
The ministry on Monday said that it called the Singaporean High Commissioner on Monday to discuss the latest development and that it welcomed Singapore’s continued emphasis on the importance of dialogue, and its willingness to engage with Malaysia in resolving matters amicably.
It said that it is agreeable to Singapore’s counter-proposed dates in January 2019, and welcomed Singapore's consideration of Malaysia’s proposed agenda for the bilateral discussion.
Said the Malaysian ministry: "The ministry referred to Singapore's diplomatic note of Dec 8, 2018, in which Singapore declined Malaysia's proposal for both countries to mutually cease and desist sending assets into the disputed area effective 0000 hrs on Dec 8, 2018 with a view of promoting de-escalation of tensions on the ground, pending discussions on outstanding maritime boundary issues.
"Singapore also called upon Malaysia to return to the status quo prior to Oct 25, 2018 by immediately withdrawing all Malaysian government vessels in the area."
Both countries acknowledge that any measures taken would be without prejudice to their own claims, said the statement. However, Malaysia is unable to accede to Singapore's counter-proposal, it added.
"While the government of Malaysia is unable to accede to Singapore's counter-proposal, Malaysia will take all effective measures to de-escalate the situation on the ground, reaffirming its position to handle the situation in a calm and peaceful manner," it said.
In the meantime, Malaysia reiterates "the importance of strong bilateral relations" between the two countries, said the ministry, adding that the country hopes discussions will "commence expeditiously".
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded soon after its Malaysian counterpart's announcement on Monday, saying that it is disappointed that Malaysia is unable to accede to Singapore’s proposal to return to the status quo before it extended the Johor Bahru port limits.
It reiterated its call for Malaysia to revert to the status quo prior to Oct 25 to avoid "misunderstandings and potential issues", and said that it welcomes the Malaysian government's agreement that officials meet in the second week of January to exchange views on resolving the port limits issue.
It also added, however, that Malaysia will be "responsible for any untoward situations on the ground that arise from continued deployment of its vessels into this area".
There have been 14 intrusions by Malaysian government vessels in Singapore territorial waters in the last two weeks, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said at a media briefing last Thursday.
These intrusions came after Malaysia extended its Johor port limits on Oct 25, encroaching into Singapore waters off Tuas.
Malaysia has called for both countries to "cease and desist" from sending assets into a "disputed area" - a proposal Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday said it did not agree with, calling for a "return to the status quo ante before Oct 25, 2018".