Malaysia's former Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar. Source: Kosmo!

Singapore needs “to learn to respect” Malaysia’s stance: Malaysia’s former Foreign Minister on maritime dispute

Singapore needs “to learn to respect” Malaysia’s stance regarding the presence of the latter’s vessels in the disputed maritime territory, warned Malaysia’s former foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar.

In an interview with Bernama published on Malay Mail on Monday (17 Dec), Syed Hamid said: “With Singapore, the things that we should learn is, don’t leave anything to interpretation. If you leave anything on the basis of good faith, of good neighbours, then you’re going to regret it.”

“We should stand firm but at the same time, we should send a very clear message that we are interested to find a solution but not at the expense of Malaysia,” he added.

He opined that the current maritime dispute originated in Singapore’s “aggressive” land reclamation around the Tuas area, as far back as 2002 some time during his tenure.

“When we asked them to stop (the reclamation work), they refused. When they refused to stop, what alternative did we have? We would bring it up.

“I think we even took an injunction for them to stop while the issues were being resolved by the tribunal. I think it’s a better outcome than if we had left it without doing anything.

“Malaysia lives to regret this mistake, we think that Singapore is more caring about its neighbour. No. It cares about its benefit,” he lamented.

“We cannot control what they want to do. We control what we want to do”: Syed Hamid, on Singapore’s purportedly antagonistic stance against Malaysia regarding the boundary dispute

When asked about the upcoming bilateral talks scheduled to take place in the middle of next month, Syed Hamid said that while Malaysia would want to “remain a very good neighbour to Singapore,” the Republic “must learn that its neighbour need not share the same view or the same lighting all the time”.

“I think Singapore must learn to accept that Malaysia” does not have to accept “their way of thinking all the time,” he added.

“I think they also need to learn to respect. We are also a country, we have got our constituency to answer to. They can’t simply push.

“Of course, the bottom line is, we want both sides to be happy with this if possible. If not possible, it only affects our territory, our port, then they should not interfere,” he argued.

When further probed if such an assertive stance will result in a tougher response from Singapore, Syed Hamid said: “We cannot control what they want to do. We control what we want to do.”

“In a situation, if you create a psychology of fear that the other side will be tougher, then all the time you will give in. I don’t think that is the right approach.

“We want to talk with them, we want to discuss with them … but you cannot talk and discuss when you already have drawn a conclusion. You have already made your position. That is not diplomatic talking, anyway,” he said.

When asked if Malaysia should remove the vessels as called upon by Singapore, Syed Hamid said: “Are they removing their vessels? No. Then, we shouldn’t. We have to protect our interests.

“Our vessels didn’t encroach into their waters. It is in our waters, we want to protect ourselves. It’s always that in the case of Singapore, they want us to do something. They must do the same thing that they want.

“If they want to de-escalate the situation, they must not take a posture that shows as if they want the tension to be there. What can Malaysia do except to protect its territory, its borders.

“So, how can they ask us to move when they don’t move? As neighbours, we should be considerate with each other. I see that Malaysia is considerate, I’m not so sure about Singapore,” he charged.

His commentary extended to the airspace dispute surrounding the implementation of the Instrument Landing System (ILS) for Seletar Airport.

“When Singapore needs our airspace, it has always been given on goodwill. The agreement is a goodwill agreement.

“Singapore needs an area for them to climb up for their flight path at the expense of our people. Now, they want to introduce ILS for Seletar Airport. When we say we don’t agree, they make an issue about it. They consider what they have done is technically correct under ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation).

“I always argued then when I was minister of defence that Malaysia should build up its facilities. Malaysia cannot rely on a country, another country for controlling our area. But that one will take time and that required a long notice under ICAO procedure,” he said.

“Singapore should not have assumed that they can take what we are still disputing”: Syed Hamid, on Singapore’s extensive reclamation works

When asked about Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s statement regarding how Singapore’s territorial waters remain unaltered despite the extensive reclamation works, Syed Hamid said: “Singapore always assumes that we do things without checking our facts or without checking our legal position. This is a very condescending view. I’m sure the maritime department, the ministry of transport, they have got an issue on that.

“You must remember in 2016, when they measure, they also have included point 20 which is an overlapping claim with Malaysia. It is a disputed area. Singapore should not have assumed that when they do their reclamation, they can take what we are still disputing. We have sent a protest,” he highlighted.

“What has happened in the case of Singapore, they have taken a very aggressive approach. That is not the way to find a solution. If they have got an issue, or are not happy with anything, they can come and (talk) … Instead, they warn us straight away.

“We, when they encroached into our overlapping area, we sent our protest and when they don’t listen to us, we brought it to the tribunal under the law of the seas’ arbitration. I think we expect Singapore to behave in the same way, and I think in this particular case, I would say that Malaysia’s position is very clear,” he said.

Verbal sparring via media is “not going to produce results”: Syed Hamid, on Singapore ministers’ media announcements regarding the maritime disputes

Syed Hamid also criticised the Singapore ministers’ method of dealing with the conflict, which has primarily involved issuing warnings through the media, including social media such as the video posted by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on his official Facebook page.

“We know that issues that have got the possibility of conflict or disputes, the best way is through diplomatic channels. It shouldn’t be through media that you want to find a solution. Singapore should have taken an approach that would allow for more constructive diplomatic discussion.

“In this particular case, in my view, Singapore created the whole situation. I mean, if they have anything that is disagreeable with what we are doing to improve our port, then they should send notice to us that “we want to discuss” but if you so choose to go to a media war, then it’s not going to produce results. We also have got to protect our interests, our sovereignty, our dignity… The most important thing is our dignity.

“You see, the difference between Singapore and Malaysia in terms of foreign policy approach, they take one position, they are like a pack. If the leader of the pack speaks, then all of the pack will. It’s just like a pack of wolves,” he said.

“We want to know why, during the previous regime of Malaysia, there was a lot of give and take. Now, when we are trying to build a new relationship (under the new Malaysian Government), they (Singapore) explode like this. I think we would like to know the motive, the agenda behind this sort of behaviour,” he argued.

Boundary disputes “may serve as a very good nationalistic issue” due to looming Singapore GE

When asked if the rekindling of the bilateral disputes via the maritime conflict is a result of the looming Singapore general election, which is expected to take place next year, Syed Hamid opined: “In Singapore, there is a fear of what has happened in Malaysia, on the euphoria for freedom as well as democracy may overflow to Singapore.

“Their new generation is expressing a lot more openness. They started to question the government and now it’s no longer possible for you to block because people can operate from overseas.

“They (may) want to follow their brother Malaysians who have decided to take a very radical transformative change. So, I think because of Singapore’s impending election, this may serve as a very good nationalistic issue.

“They (Singapore) always complain that when there is an upcoming election (on our part), we always have our nationalism and we bring up Singapore as a boogie [bogeyman].

“Isn’t Singapore bringing up Malaysia as a boogie [bogeyman] for all their problems?” he concluded.