Singapore confident of ‘significant progress’ in resolving bilateral issues with Malaysia soon: Vivian Balakrishnan
There will be significant discussions when Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim makes an official visit to Singapore in January, says Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.
KUALA LUMPUR: Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said on Tuesday (Jan 17) he is confident that there will be “significant progress” in resolving outstanding bilateral issues with Malaysia imminently.
He added that upcoming talks between the leaders of both countries could include long-standing bilateral issues which “we think are ripe for resolution”.
Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of his four-day visit to Malaysia - his first official visit to the country since Mr Anwar Ibrahim became Malaysia's 10th prime minister in November last year.
He was asked about what will be on the agenda when Mr Anwar makes an official visit to Singapore later in January, as well as the Singapore Government’s views on Mr Anwar’s recent statements on the Pedra Branca issue.
Mr Anwar said on Dec 14 that he had asked the Attorney-General to clarify Malaysia’s claims on Pedra Branca, which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded to Singapore in 2008.
Dr Balakrishnan said on Tuesday: “There's going to be quite a lot of conversation going on behind the scenes, so I'm not going to give you details right now. But what I'm saying is that we have leaders on both sides who are keenly aware of both the historical background as well as why we should resolve things and move forward.
“So I'm confident that in the next few weeks and months, you will see significant progress. I can't get into the details of the negotiations except to say that I'm hopeful that we will make progress and the objective is to make as much progress as possible and not let us be held hostage to the past … and look forward to the future with confidence, in good faith and mutual support."
Mr Anwar's comments on Pedra Branca in December were the first time he has raised the issue as Malaysia's prime minister. His predecessor Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in October that his Cabinet had agreed to proceed with legal action at the ICJ on the issue.
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) responded then that Singapore stands ready to "robustly defend" its sovereignty over Pedra Branca, located near the eastern entrance of the Straits of Singapore, about 44km east of mainland Singapore.
The dispute over Pedra Branca dates back to 1979 when Malaysia published a map indicating that the island was within the country’s territorial waters.
The matter was brought to the ICJ in 2003, and on May 23, 2008, it ruled that Singapore had sovereignty over Pedra Branca, while Middle Rocks was awarded to Malaysia and South Ledge belonged to the state in whose territorial waters it is located.
"After the Court's decision, both Singapore and Malaysia publicly announced that they will accept and abide by the Court's decision which is final," MFA said.
"In 2017, Malaysia instituted an application for revision and a request for interpretation of the Court's 2008 decision, which were subsequently withdrawn by Malaysia in 2018," it added.
"Under the Statute of the Court, an application for revision cannot be made after the expiry of 10 years from the date of the Court’s 2008 judgement, that is, May 2018."
PM ANWAR'S VISIT TO SINGAPORE
Singapore is looking forward to hosting Mr Anwar on his visit, said Dr Balakrishnan.
“I think there will be significant discussions that will set the stage, set the agenda and set the timetable for the respective ministers to follow up,” he told reporters.
He added that issues that will be discussed include connectivity, “some long-standing issues which we think are ripe for resolution”, as well as opportunities in the digital and green economic space.
When asked if Singapore is concerned with political instability in Malaysia and if it could impact bilateral projects, Dr Balakrishnan noted that in the last five to six years, he had engaged with five different Malaysian prime ministers. He maintained that there is optimism moving forward, following discussions with the current leaders.
“As a close, interdependent neighbour what we hope for is stability, continuity and consistency in policies so that we can continue projects,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
“Prime Minister Anwar has emphasised to me that he has a significant majority (in parliament) and he expects to be able to deliver on his commitments and to pursue ambitious negotiations with goodwill and good faith."
NO DISCUSSIONS ON RESUMPTION OF HSR
Dr Balakrishnan was also asked if he held any discussions regarding the revival of the terminated Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High-Speed Rail (HSR) project.
In September 2022, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong told then-Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob that Singapore was open to fresh proposals from Malaysia on the HSR.
Mr Wong also noted Malaysia's interest in reviving discussions on the project - echoing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's comments after he met Mr Ismail Sabri during the Malaysian leader's first official visit to Singapore in November last year.
Dr Balakrishnan said on Tuesday: “No we didn't discuss that. We focused on the RTS Link that will connect Johor to Singapore. That will be a significant boost for people and workers on both sides of the straits of Johor … So far based on my discussions with Malaysia ministers, they have assured me that they are going all out to ensure that we can meet the deadline of it being completed by the end of 2026.
“On other projects, we will wait for proposals for Malaysia. We will keep an open mind."
The HSR project, which aimed to reduce travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to about 90 minutes, was discontinued after multiple postponements at Malaysia's request. An agreement eventually lapsed in December 2020.
Malaysia paid more than S$102 million in compensation to Singapore for the terminated project.
During his visit, Dr Balakrishnan had an audience with Malaysia's King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah and called on Mr Anwar.
He also held discussions with his Malaysian counterpart Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir, Economic Affairs Minister Rafizi Ramli, Transport Minister Anthony Loke, Defence Minister Mohamad Hasan as well as Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad.
Dr Balakrishnan also met former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin.