SINGAPORE: It is always better to settle disagreements through "peaceful talks", Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Sunday (Jan 20).
The minister, who spoke on the sidelines of a Programme for Active Living event in Bishan, made his comments in reference to ongoing maritime and airspace disputes between Singapore and Malaysia.
READ: Singapore-Malaysia bilateral issues: Both sides must act in good faith, says Vivian Balakrishnan
Said Dr Ng: "The most important takeaway from the last few weeks since the Malaysian government vessels entered into our Singapore territorial waters in Tuas, as well as the situation in Seletar and issues about airspace, is that one: We have avoided coming to blows.
"It's always better to settle disagreements through peaceful talks, negotiations and discussions."
Dr Ng added that the two sides were "making headway" and speaking, but at the same time, Singapore's security agencies are "ever vigilant".
"I think we are making headway, as you know, the Minister for Transport and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the (Malaysian) officials are speaking," he said."At the same time, our security agencies (SAF, the Home Team) are ever vigilant."
"We watch very carefully. We know what's going on. We're able to respond very quickly."
Singapore and Malaysia have been embroiled in a dispute over Singapore’s introduction of new Instrument Landing System procedures for Seletar Airport, which Malaysia said would hamper the construction of tall buildings at Johor's Pasir Gudang, to the north of the airport. Singapore has disagreed with this.
Another dispute over maritime issues was sparked by Malaysia's unilateral decision to extend the Johor Bahru port limits in October, and the subsequent intrusion of Malaysian government vessels in Singapore waters.
Officials from the two countries will meet "in the coming weeks" to discuss the ongoing disputes, Malaysia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Saturday.
Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and his Malaysian counterpart Anthony Loke will meet to “discuss the way forward” on airspace-related issues, including the Instrument Landing System (ILS) and ILS approach procedures for Singapore’s Seletar Airport, the Malaysian ministry said in a press release.
Separately, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong will meet the Malaysian foreign ministry's secretary-general Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob on Jan 28. This meeting will be on maritime issues, as well as legal and operational matters to de-escalate the situation on the ground.
Reiterating his comments in Parliament that Singapore's security agencies are "acting with restraint", Dr Ng added that both countries had stated their views and it was now up to diplomats to arrive at a "constructive position".
"We’ll leave it to MFA, but I think both sides have stated our views so let’s let our diplomats and officials talk it through and arrive at a constructive position that respects both sides rights, goes with international law as well as helps both sides prosper," he said.
"Ultimately we lead our individual countries but we are servants to our people, and we must make sure our people are not put into harm’s way or that their livelihoods are not affected," added the minister.
"At the same time, guarding our own rights upon international law and I think based on that, there are common views that both sides can arrive at that will meet our objectives. That's the best way to serve our people."
NO "LARGE SPIKE" IN DEFENCE SPENDING FOR BUDGET
Meanwhile, Dr Ng also said that his ministry does not does not see a large spike in defence spending for this year's budget, after the ministry on Friday announced it would buy a small number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to replace ageing F-16s.
The replacements will be done within defence budget constraints, said the minister.
"MINDEF made an announcement that we are proceeding with our F16s replacement by F35s," said Dr Ng. "Having said that, that is part of our overall plan for modernisation of the (Singapore Armed Forces) and as I said, we will do it within the defence budget constraints."
"We know how to stretch it out and if we plan long, we will be able do it," he added. "So it’s always a significant investment into defence, but we don't see a large spike in defence spending for this year's budget."