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Malaysia’s refusal to withdraw vessels from disputed maritime area “not conducive” to bilateral talks: Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan

The persistent presence of Malaysian vessels in the hotly disputed maritime area near Tuas is "not conducive" to the bilateral discussions between Malaysia and Singapore, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

Speaking to reporters after the signing ceremony for the Mid-Life Upgrading Works for North-East Line Trains on Monday (17 Dec), Mr Khaw said that another vessel has been spotted lingering in the area on Monday after the Malaysian government had pulled out a vessel last week, leaving only one vessel at the time.

He also said that the specific number of vessels is immaterial, and that the crux of the issue is the presence of any unauthorised Malaysian vessels in Singapore's waters.

"I don’t think it is a question of counting one, two, or three. Our preference, which we urge them to do, is to withdraw the ships because it is not conducive," said Mr Khaw.

"It is not necessary. It does not make a difference to (Malaysia's) legal claim."

Previously, Mr Khaw issued a stern warning against Malaysian vessels allegedly encroaching the territorial waters of Singapore, and declared that the Republic will not hesitate to take "firm actions" against further intrusions.

In a statement on 6 Dec, Mr Khaw added that in response to the "provocative action on the part of Malaysia", Singapore will be extending port limits "within Singapore Territorial Waters" under the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (Port Limits) (Amendment) Notification 2018 with immediate effect.

He elaborated that the extension "tracks the eastern boundary of the 1999 Johor Bahru Port Limits".

"It is... a reaction to this provocative action on the part of Malaysia, but we do it properly, in accordance with international law, and certainly do not infringe on our neighbour's rights."

Mr Khaw also claimed that there have been "14 intrusions" by Malaysian vessels into Singapore's maritime boundaries, with three vessels still present in Singapore as of Wednesday (5 Dec).

"Singapore had protested the repeated intrusions via three TPNs [Third Person Notes]", said the minister, and highlighted that Singapore has urged Malaysia to "cease their intrusions and return to the status quo before 25 Oct 2018".

Prior to 25 Oct, the contested area was not claimed by Malaysia and Singapore but on 25 Oct, Malaysia extended its port-limit to the area and Singapore soon followed to extend its port claim to the area on 6 Dec, which the Singapore authorities claimed to be intrusion by the Malaysian authorities.

"My main message today is... Back off. Leave our waters while we pursue sit-down dialogues and try to resolve it."

"Our security agencies will continue to patrol the area, and respond to unauthorised activities on the ground. They have so far responded with restraint against aggressive actions by the Malaysian Government vessels," said Mr Khaw.

On top of finding solutions to the maritime dispute, Singapore and Malaysia will carry out bilateral talks in the middle of next month to also discuss the airspace conflict regarding Seletar Airport's Instrument Landing System, which has become a point of contention on Malaysia's side due to the possibility of disruption in relation to Pasir Gudang's development.

Meanwhile, touching on the progress made by MOT in terms of upgrading Singapore's MRT and the Republic's transport system as a whole, Mr Khaw said: "I've been in MOT now for three years ... So compared to the first two years, I think this year, 2018, is a relatively successful one," said Mr Khaw.

"I think we managed to make some progress."

"Our #OneTransport team is pressing on in a combined effort to strengthen the reliability of our train service. 2018 has been a good year.

"We hope 2019 will be even better," concluded Mr Khaw.