JOHOR BAHRU: Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian on Thursday (Jan 17) defended his decision to visit a Malaysian vessel anchored in Singapore waters, adding that his actions have been supported by grassroots leaders.
According to a report by the Malay Mail, Mr Osman said he was unfazed by the criticisms.
“In fact, I received a few messages and a video via WhatsApp from several Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia division leaders and ketua kampungs (village chiefs) that gave their support to me,” he said.
“Maybe in the next few days, there will be more people that will give their support to me on the issue,” he said after attending an international Islamic and halal festival.
The chief minister added that he had received “unofficial blessing” from Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and his deputy before visiting the vessel.
“They did not stop me at all from visiting the area,” he said, according to the Malay Mail.
He noted that he was not only Johor’s Chief Minister, but also the chairman of the state’s security council. His role in the council required him to personally understand the maritime dispute, said Mr Osman.
Singapore and Malaysia have been embroiled in an airspace and maritime dispute.
Malaysian government vessels have made repeated incursions into Singapore territorial waters in recent months, after Malaysia extended the Johor Bahru port limits in October, encroaching into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas.
Singapore has protested the port limit extension and the movements of the vessels. Singapore's Transport Ministry also extended Singapore's port limits off Tuas on Dec 6 in response.
On Jan 8, both countries agreed to establish a working group to study and discuss legal and operational matters relating to the maritime dispute, in order to provide a basis for further discussions and negotiations.
However the next day, Mr Osman was seen making "an unauthorised visit" to the Pedoman, in "a provocative act" that went against the spirit of the agreement by both countries to resolve bilateral issues in a calm and constructive manner, said Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Over the weekend, Malaysian Minister for Economic Affairs Azmin Ali met Singapore ministers to discuss bilateral issues.
READ: An open, candid talk on issues: Dr Balakrishnan on meeting with Malaysia Economic Affairs Minister
On Monday, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said in a ministerial statement in Parliament that both sides must act in “good faith” to overcome bilateral issues.
Mr Osman's "publicised visit" undermined the goodwill and trust necessary for further cooperation between the two countries, and "made it untenable" for Singapore and Malaysia to proceed with the joint ministerial committee talks for Iskandar Malaysia, Dr Balakrishnan added.
“We will always take appropriate measures to safeguard our interest and any country dealing with Singapore must not assume that it is cost-free to embark on any adventures or antics against us. There will be consequences,” he said when responding to a question on what further action Singapore could take if there are further intrusions.
Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen also said in Parliament on Tuesday that while Singapore's security agencies have the capability to compel intruding Malaysian government vessels to leave, they have been ordered for the time being to "exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions".
On Wednesday, Mr Azmin told Channel NewsAsia that the momentum of bilateral ties is “very positive”.
Mr Azmin noted that there were "issues that we have to deal with", but he did not want "a particular statement by any side" to derail the main objective of both governments.
Mr Saifuddin also said on Wednesday that that bilateral relations remain good despite the need for further discussions on several matters.
“Our relations with Singapore remain good. There are some issues but we are talking to each other, and that is very important.
On Thursday, Malaysia's former foreign minister Anifah Aman also weighed in on the issue and urged the relevant parties not to indulge in any provocative action.
In a press statement, he noted that during his tenure as foreign minister, both countries had also faced challenges but always overcame them in a "calm and effective" manner.
He said that those who did not have a proper understanding of the background of bilateral ties should not make any comment without considering the consequences.
"If a resolution cannot be achieved, other efforts will be taken to bring the issue to an international court or tribunal," he added.
"These efforts will be carried out in a prudent and wise manner."
“Singapore is one of Malaysia’s partners and a close ally in championing a common stand on multilateral and international issues. These values and elements should be taken into account in establishing a healthy diplomatic relationship,” Mr Anifah said.
"Let us not allow our egos to destroy what we have built thus far."
Meanwhile, Johor Information, Entrepreneurship Development, Cooperatives and Creative Economy Committee chairman Sheikh Umar Bagharib Ali, who was also at the Islamic festival, lauded Mr Osman’s visit as a patriotic move.
“What the Johor Mentri Besar (chief minister) did was for the love of the state, country and also its sovereignty,” he said on Thursday, adding that there was no provocation.