SINGAPORE: Singapore is committed to resolving the ongoing bilateral issues with Malaysia in an “amicable and constructive manner”, and in strict accordance with bilateral agreements and international law, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Friday (Mar 1).
Speaking in Parliament during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate, Dr Balakrishnan provided several updates on the various issues that have come to the fore in recent months.
On the port limits issue, he said officials have been meeting to discuss measures to de-escalate the situation, and both sides are aware of the urgent need to prevent more accidents and untoward incidents. For example, the collision between Greek-registered bulk carrier Pireas and Malaysian Government vessel Polaris, which was illegally anchored in Singapore territorial waters.
The maritime dispute 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. Singapore lodged a "strong protest" with the Malaysian government over the port limits which it said encroaches into Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas. It added in a media statement that Malaysia's actions are "a serious violation of Singapore’s sovereignty and international law".
Dr Balakrishnan said the working group is due to submit its recommendations to the two foreign ministers in early March.
On the airspace dispute, he added that transport ministers and senior officials from both sides have also been meeting to discuss the arrangements for Seletar Airport and the airspace over Southern Johor, including on the instrument approaches into Seletar Airport, and Malaysia’s Restricted Area over Pasir Gudang. “We look forward to finding a solution that is mutually agreeable,” he said.
Malaysia had called on Singapore to implement new Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures on the southern side of Seletar Airport as opposed to the northern side. It had objected to Singapore’s publication of the ILS procedures, saying it would restrict the construction of tall buildings at Johor’s Pasir Gudang, to the north of Seletar Airport.
In his speech, Dr Balakrishnan outlined Singapore’s approach to various foreign policy challenges, stressing that it is important for Singapore to be a friend to all and an enemy to none.
“This is especially so in our immediate neighbourhood, where peace and stability in Southeast Asia are absolutely essential,” he said.
He added that Singapore’s foreign policy principles remain as salient today as they were at independence.
SINGAPORE MUST STAND UP FOR MULTILATERAL, GLOBAL TRADING SYSTEM
Singapore, he said, must continue to promote a rules-based international order, pointing out that a system that upholds the rights and sovereignty of all states and the rule of law is important to small states such as Singapore.
“Without it, small countries will have very little chance of survival,” he said. “In Singapore, our trade volume is three times our GDP. Therefore I hope that all Members agree with me that we must stand up for the multilateral, rules-based global trading system,” he added. “This is not a debating point, this is lifeblood for us.”
In speaking about the foreign policy challenges Singapore faces, Dr Balakrishnan had pointed out that the global multilateral rules-based trading system embodied by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has come under “serious threat”.
“Unfortunately, countries, under domestic political pressure, increasingly view multilateral agreements on issues such as trade, climate change, security, arms control, cybersecurity as shackles on sovereignty and a burden on economic growth,” he said.
“Over time, trade connectivity may shrink, tit-for-tat action on disputes will increase, and our ability respond to global challenges like radicalism, cybersecurity, and climate change will be impaired,” he added.
“Left unchecked, this will be a negative-sum game for all.”
He said that Singapore will continue to play an active role at the World Trade Organisation, and in negotiating a web of free trade agreements at a bilateral and multilateral level. Singapore has also ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which entered into force on December 30, 2018.
There has also been substantial progress on the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), he added, and leaders of RCEP-participating countries have committed to conclude the RCEP this year.
RELATIONS WITH KEY POWERS REMAIN ROBUST AND CONSTRUCTIVE
Dr Balakrishnan also noted that even at a time of increasing tensions and polarisation, Singapore’s relations with key powers such as the US and China remain “robust and constructive”.
He had in his speech described the Sino-US relationship as the “most important bilateral relationship in the global system”, and pointed out that the dynamic between the two powers is shifting from engagement to strategic rivalry and competition.
“Consequently, new strategic architectures will arise,” he said, adding that countries, including Singapore, will come under intense pressure to choose sides.
But Singapore, he said, must always be a credible and consistent partner, continue to be honest brokers, and deal fairly and openly with all parties.
“The key to this is our neutrality,” he said. “We cannot be bought, nor can we be bullied.”
On Singapore’s relations with China, Singapore, he said, enjoyed a good exchange of visits at the highest level. Both countries also maintain regular exchanges through institutionalised platforms such as the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC).
On the economic front, Singapore remains China’s top foreign investor, while China has been Singapore’s largest trading partner since 2013. Both sides, he added, also concluded the upgrade of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement in 2018, bringing the economic cooperation between both countries “to new heights”.
The US also remains a key partner for Singapore, with both countries continuing its close cooperation in both the defence and security spheres.
“While the current US Administration has adopted an unconventional approach towards issues such as trade, the fundamentals that underpin the bilateral relationship remain strong,” he said.