Amid bilateral talks, Johor MB a victim in Singapore’s search for bargaining chip

Zurairi Ar Assistant News Editor
Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Osman Sapian aboard the MV Pedoman. ― Picture via Facebook/Osman Sapian

COMMENTARY, Jan 12 — All things considered, the recent bilateral talk between our Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah and his Singapore counterpart Dr Vivian Balakrishnan was a victory for Malaysia.

Singapore’s Seletar Airport agreed to halt its Instrument Landing System (ILS) for one month while both countries’ transport ministers come out with a more permanent solution.

In return, Malaysia only had to lift its airspace restriction over the same area for the same period.

But to say the talk resulted in a favourable solution to the airspace and maritime dispute between the two neighbours may be a bit premature.

After all, both ministers failed to come up with any resolution regarding the protracted maritime border conundrum, save for announcing a joint working group between the two countries led by Wisma Putra Secretary-General Datuk Seri Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob and the Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry Chee Wee Kiong.

It is uncertain whether the working group has even held its first discussion or meeting, but it only has two months to come out with a report to both foreign ministries.

However, Singapore not only had to accede to Malaysia on Seletar — albeit temporarily — but its hand has also been forced to finally start negotiations on the maritime borders, an issue that it has left undecided for decades, only to its own benefit.

These must have rankled the Singaporean leadership.

This is the context with which we have to view the recent retaliation by Singapore against a visit by Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Osman Sapian to a Malaysian Marine Department vessel off his own state’s waters recently.

To be frank, Osman’s decision to visit MV Pedoman, a buoy-laying vessel anchored within the Johor Baru new port limits, may have been ill-timed, considering the sensitive situation in the area.

But he did nothing unlawful. The vessel is situated well within Malaysian waters.

Screen capture of MarineTraffic showing MV Pedoman's position.

It just so happens that Singapore has not only refused to recognise this, but it has also extended its own port limits in order to overlap the area being claimed by Malaysia.

This is the exact situation that had led to the current dispute, which was supposed to be handled by the joint working group.

Instead, Singapore media has decided to report Osman’s visit as a so-called “intrusion” into its own waters instead, which was swiftly followed by Singapore’s Foreign Ministry today cancelling the 14th Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia scheduled for this Monday. Malaysia now has no choice but to agree.

We can only view this move on Singapore’s part as an attempt to gain a bargaining chip amid the two-month period afforded to the joint working group on the maritime border issue.

Putrajaya must not only stand behind Osman, but it must also ensure that no other politician make the same mistake so no more such incidents may be used by Singapore to its advantage in the negotiation.

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