PUTRAJAYA: The agreement between Singapore and Malaysia to implement measures to de-escalate the maritime dispute was a positive move, but it is only one step in a long journey to resolve bilateral issues, said Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday (Mar 14).
Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to Singapore media after holding a joint press conference with his Malaysian counterpart, Mr Saifuddin Abdullah at Putrajaya, where the pair announced an agreement to implement five measures proposed by a working group set up by both countries.
The measures include suspending the implementation of overlapping port limits, suspending commercial activities in the area and an agreement not to anchor government vessels there.
Singapore and Malaysia vessels will operate in the area in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Both sides also agreed to establish a committee for boundary delimitation, which will ensure the implementation of the measures within one month. After that, negotiations for maritime boundary delimitation in the area will begin.
If the measures are implemented, Dr Balakrishnan said the Malaysian vessels will have to leave the area and the situation will “revert to what it was”.
“The main objective here is to de-escalate the situation on the ground, make sure you lower the risks of untoward accidents.
"Once that gets done, then you set the environment right and then we can commence negotiations for delimitation,” he noted.
He added: “But you can’t have negotiations if there are things happening on the ground, or there is tension and there is a very real risk of collision or accidents. So this is an important first step but it is only a first step and it is a long journey.”
Malaysia had on Oct 25 gazetted an extension of its Johor Bahru port limits in a manner which Singapore said encroaches into its territorial waters off Tuas.
Singapore had also protested "provocative acts" by Malaysia in recent months, including a visit by Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian to a Malaysian vessel parked in Singapore waters.
In December, Malaysia proposed that both countries cease and desist from sending assets into waters of Tuas, but Singapore said then that although it remains ready to discuss the issue, it does not agree with the proposal.
When asked on the difference between Thursday’s agreed measures and the previous proposal, Dr Balakrishnan pointed out that under the new recommendations, Malaysia vessels will have to leave Singapore's waters.
The port limits of both countries will revert back to the situation before Malaysia first extended its port limits, he said.
In the previous proposal, such terms were not laid out, he said. “We could not accept that proposal because in our view, that would have meant a reduction in our position with respect to our territorial sovereignty.”
If the measures are implemented, the port limits will revert to the situation before Oct 25. Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore will continue to patrol those areas in accordance with Singapore laws and UNCLOS.
He added that if Malaysia does not respect or abide by the measures stated in Thursday’s joint press statement, then Singapore will not commence boundary negotiations.
“It is very clear cut that we’ve agreed on five items. The first four items need to be fulfilled in their entirety, then we can commence negotiations," he said.
"Let’s see how things work out over the days and weeks to come.”
NO AGREEMENT MADE ON RIGHT TO REVIEW WATER PRICE: DR BALAKRISHNAN
Dr Balakrishnan also highlighted that there has been no agreement made on the right to review the water price.
"There is only agreement to sit down, to explain, discuss and to appreciate each other’s respective positions," he said.
Dr Balakrishnan said that the first meeting between the attorneys-general last year "really did not make any progress" and "certainly no agreements were reached".
He added that when they meet again "sometime in the near future", it gives them an opportunity to reach a better appreciation for the respective positions of the two countries.
During the joint press conference, Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Saifuddin said the attorneys-general of Singapore and Malaysia will continue discussions to "better understand each other’s position" on the right to review the price of water.
The attorneys-general of both countries met once in December last year for this purpose, however, their discussions were overshadowed by issues between the two countries that had arisen over the Johor Bahru Port Limits and the Seletar Airport Instrument Landing System procedures.
On Wednesday, Singapore said it has been "clear and consistent" in its position that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.
The statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in response to comments by its Malaysian counterpart on Tuesday, in which the latter said that the countries' prime ministers had agreed in November last year to begin discussions on the water agreement.
The water agreement, which expires in 2061, entitles Singapore to draw up to 250 million gallons a day (mgd) of water from the Johor River.
Singapore pays 3 sen per thousand gallons of raw water and sells treated water back to Johor at 50 sen per thousand gallons, a fraction of the cost of treating the water.
Johor is entitled to a daily supply of treated water of up to 2 per cent or 5 mgd of the water supplied to Singapore. In practice, however, Singapore has been supplying 16 mgd of treated water to Johor at its request.
During a meeting between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart, Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Nov 12 last year, both sides had expressed their differing views on the right to review the price of water under the agreement.