SINGAPORE: 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" with its northern neighbour, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Tuesday (Jan 15).
Singapore and Malaysia are embroiled in a maritime dispute after Malaysia extended its Johor Bahru port limits in a manner which, according to the Singapore government, "encroaches into Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas".
Singapore has also protested "provocative acts" by Malaysia in recent months, including intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore territory, and a visit by Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian to a Malaysian vessel parked in Singapore waters.
Speaking in Parliament, Dr Ng said in response to questions from MP Lee Bee Wah and NCMP Dennis Tan on these intrusions that Singapore's security agencies have been ordered to exercise restraint "so as not to jeopardise the conditions necessary for constructive discussions and peaceful resolution of the dispute".
He added that Singapore's security personnel "have repeatedly pressed" Malaysian government vessels to withdraw from Singapore territorial waters since their intrusions began, and that they will continue to do so.
READ: Singapore postpones joint ministerial committee talks on Iskandar after Johor chief minister’s intrusion into its territorial waters
On the recent incursion by Mr Osman into Singapore waters, Dr Ng noted that such incidents are provocative and escalatory, and contradict the officially stated policy of the Malaysian government.
"Tensions and real risks increased during this incident," said Dr Ng, adding that Singapore security agencies had detected "early" the movement of Mr Osman's entourage, which sharply increased the number of Malaysian vessels in Singapore waters from two to five.
"Our Police Coast Guard and Republic of Singapore Navy vessels responded promptly to this provocation, as they had to. As a result, the total number of vessels in the area more than doubled," said Dr Ng.
"These provocations do nothing to help resolve disputes and indeed can precipitate incidents on the ground which will do lasting harm to bilateral ties," he added.
But Dr Ng welcomed assurances by the Malaysian government that they would take measures to de-escalate the tensions in Tuas and expressed hope that all Malaysian agencies will abide by this stated policy.
"Despite our disagreements, both sides want to resolve differences through discussions and peaceful means," he said.
He noted that the two Foreign Ministers agreed during their meeting on Jan 8 to set up a working group of officials from both Foreign Affairs Ministries to “discuss the legal and operational matters to de-escalate the situation in the waters off Tuas, and will report within two months”.