SINGAPORE: One Malaysian ship remains in Singapore's territorial waters as of Wednesday (Dec 12), said Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan as he noted the steps taken by Malaysia to de-escalate tensions on the ground.
There were three Malaysian government vessels in Singapore's waters last Friday.
"They committed to take effective measures to de-escalate on the ground. I think this is a good move in the right direction," Mr Khaw said on Wednesday.
He reiterated the need for Malaysia to completely withdraw from the area.
"We too intend to manage this dispute in a calm and peaceful manner. However while they committed to de-escalate and have taken some steps, they do not agree to withdraw completely.
"This creates an unnecessary risk of an accidental escalation on the ground. That’s why once again we strongly urge Malaysia to withdraw from our waters. Otherwise this risk is also not conducive to the upcoming bilateral discussions that we are going to hold next month," said the minister.
The two countries are locked in a maritime dispute 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.
Mr Khaw had said at a media conference on Dec 6 that there had been 14 intrusions into Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas in the past two weeks.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mr Khaw said Singapore values its bilateral relations with Malaysia, and that it is trying to find a "peaceful solution" to the dispute.
“We value our bilateral relations with Malaysia, that’s why we are trying our best to find a peaceful solution to the current dispute," said the minister. "We explained to them that stationing their ships in our waters does not make an iota difference to their legal claim. It doesn’t enhance their legal case. They acknowledge this legal point."
When asked what would happen if Malaysia does not withdraw its vessels altogether, and whether talks would still take place in that case, Mr Khaw said Singapore is committed to talks and a peaceful resolution.
"Peaceful resolution is always the best way forward," he stressed. "But as I said, it doesn’t add to your legal case. And my worry all the time is accidents can happen."
"These are big ships," added the minister. "Few thousand tonnes and they move at great speed. You don’t know what will happen - and it might not be intended - but what if accidents, happen then what?
BILATERAL MEETING SET FOR JANUARY
Singapore and Malaysia also have a separate dispute over airspace arrangements in southern Johor.
Mr Khaw confirmed that both sides will meet to discuss the issues in the second week of January.
“The meetings are being scheduled by the foreign affairs ministries of both countries and we have found a common slot which is the second week of January and we will proceed with the meeting,” he said.
Mr Khaw also quoted Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who said last month during an official visit to Singapore that both countries are "like twins".
“And that’s a good illustration. As twins, you ought to embrace each other and help each other grow and help each other succeed and celebrate each other’s achievements. Then I think it is so much better,” he said.
When asked if bilateral relations are at their lowest, Mr Khaw said: "Whether this is the lowest it doesn't matter. The key point is yes, neighbours will always have some disputes. It's how you address them and always have the hope and optimism that something better can come out of it."
READ: Malaysia 'seems to be using technical excuse’ to change airspace arrangements: Singapore's Khaw Boon Wan
Malaysia had last Tuesday announced that it wants to reclaim its "delegated airspace" in southern Johor, citing concerns over sovereignty and national interest.
It had at the same time objected to Singapore's publication of the Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures for Seletar Airport, saying that it would restrict the construction of tall buildings at Johor's Pasir Gudang.
Mr Khaw said on Wednesday that Malaysia seems to be using a "technical excuse" to change airspace arrangements in southern Johor.
“The key point is if it were a technical concern, with goodwill, I am confident a mutually satisfactory technical solution can be found," Mr Khaw said on Wednesday, referring to the ILS.
He added that there are “a few inaccuracies” in a video posted by his Malaysian counterpart Anthony Loke explaining why Malaysia objects to Singapore's decision to implement ILS procedures at Seletar Airport from Jan 3, 2019.