SINGAPORE: In his first comments on Singapore's ongoing maritime dispute with Malaysia, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said with the possibility of accidents taking place, the “risk of escalation cannot be underestimated".
“The ground situation is tense. The ships are in close proximity with one another and we know that some ships are armed, so the risk of escalation cannot be underestimated. Accidents might happen.
“We urge all parties to revert to the pre-Oct 25 status quo ante for things to calm down. And there are ways to do this under international law without prejudice to Malaysia,” Mr Chan said, speaking to reporters after an event at Buona Vista Community Club on Saturday (Dec 8).
Mr Chan said Singapore welcomes talks to find a “swift and amicable resolution” to the issues. He added that in the event of a failure to reach an agreement, Singapore is open to seeking recourse through an "appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure".
The minister also called for calming down of the ground situation first.
He said the Republic of Singapore Navy and the Singapore Police Coast Guard have been patrolling the areas off Tuas for decades.
“Then suddenly the Malaysians publish a new map with a new port limit. No consultations, no discussions. Claiming even more than what they did in 1979, which no one else has even accepted.
“Sending Malaysian government vessels into the area inconsistent with innocent passage, conducting unlawful and unauthorised activities under international law, refusing to leave, then suggesting that Singapore vessels leave the area for talks to happen. That’s not right. Even the layman can see that this cannot be right,” Mr Chan said.
Adding more ships, using force and trying to change the facts at sea will not add to their claim, he added.
While Singapore does not want to speculate on Malaysia’s domestic and bilateral considerations, the minister said “we have seen this pattern before”, citing Malaysia’s unilateral claims over Pedra Branca and the waters off Tuas.
“That set off a dispute that lasted decades. Military forces were deployed, facing off each other at sea. We were brought up in that generation. We even went to ICJ (International Court of Justice) and even that did not fully settle the issue. Even today, we are still managing the issue. It has become a blemish on our bilateral ties,” he said.
Mr Chan said the younger Malaysian leaders whom he has met since May have all signalled towards closer cooperation, and have agreed that the competition is not so much between the two countries as much as against the rest of the world.
“I hope their actions will match their words,” Mr Chan added.
Singapore said on Friday that it does not agree with Malaysia’s proposal for both countries to "cease and desist" from sending assets into what Malaysia called a "disputed area".
A spokesman from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said it “will respond in due course” on Malaysia’s proposal.
Mr Chan’s remarks on the issue also come a day after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, had weighed in.
Warning Malaysian vessels intruding Singapore waters to leave, Mr Ng said in a Facebook post: "Singaporeans are peace-loving, but I strongly caution violators to leave Singapore territorial waters.”
Mr Masagos called Malaysia’s actions a "sudden unilateral move" and added: "If anyone violates these laws and our agreement, threatening our sovereignty, we will defend it firmly."
TAKE FIRM ACTION BUT ALSO REMAIN CALM
In a separate statement on Saturday, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu said Singapore must take firm action but also remain calm when its sovereign rights are affected.
Speaking on the sidelines of a police community roadshow in Jurong, Ms Fu added that she hopes Singapore and Malaysia's bilateral relationship will be put back on the right track given how strongly connected the two countries are.
"We hope that we can put our relationship back to the right trajectory, we want to get past this situation right now - nobody wants this tension to build up, but where our sovereign rights are affected, we must take the right actions, we must take firm actions but we must also remain calm," she said.
On Thursday, Singapore announced it had extended its port limits off Tuas in view of the recent "provocative developments" and said it will not hesitate to take firm action against intrusions by Malaysian government vessels in its waters.
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 on Thursday. As of Friday afternoon, there were still three Malaysian government vessels in Singapore waters.
These intrusions came after Malaysia extended its Johor port limits on Oct 25, encroaching into Singapore waters off Tuas.