The highly-anticipated 8 January meeting between Malaysia and Singapore regarding Pasir Gudang’s airspace finally arrived at a mutual bilateral agreement to hold off both side’s requests for at least about a month.
Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a joint statement alongside Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah on Tuesday in Singapore:
“The first agreement we arrived at was to agree to the simultaneous and immediate suspension of Malaysia’s Permanent Restricted Area over Pasir Gudang and Singapore’s implementation of the Instrument Landing System procedures for Seletar Airport. This simultaneous and immediate suspension will be for a period of one month.”
On that note, Malaysia immediately suspends its enforcement of the Permanent Restricted Area status over the airspace while Singapore returns the favor by suspending Seletar Airport’s move to implement the Instrument Landing System (ILS) over what is regarded a congested area barely strategic for aircraft landing.
Dr Balakrishnan also stated that both Transport Ministers will also meet soon to conduct discussions on the issue to ensure safety of the civil aviation industry in this part of the world.
The recent kerfuffle involving Malaysia and Singapore over the delegated airspace down south in Malaysia is one of such occasional disputes over the air and maritime boundaries between the two, no thanks to a range of geographical and structural challenges.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia defines a Restricted Area as ‘an airspace of defined dimensions, above the land areas or territorial waters of a State, within which the flight of aircraft is restricted in accordance with certain specified conditions.’
Singapore manages Johor’s airspace since 1974
Since 1974, Singapore has been given the mandate of rendering air traffic control services by overseeing the southern Johor airspace through the signing of the Operational Letter of Agreement Between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore Area Control Centres Concerning Singapore Arrivals, Departures and Overflight (LOA 1974).
One month ahead of the operation of the contentious ILS which was set to be carried out on 3 Jan 2019, Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke in a press conference dated 29 Nov announced to Singapore its intention to regain this ‘delegated airspace’ area, which is expected to be completed in phases from the beginning of this year to 2023.
Malaysia had since put on a tough front protesting against Singapore’s 1 Dec 2018 move to issue a public broadcast of the ILS plan, citing non-consultative behavior flagrantly displayed to Malaysia regarding the decision prior to this.
In response to this, in a two-page statement, Singapore’s transport ministry said that the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore(CAAS) had first informed Malaysia’s transport ministry about the planned move of turboprop operations to Seletar since 2014 itself before it was finally published to its Malaysian counterpart last December.
Throughout the timeframe, Singapore stressed that it had received no substantive response despite repeated reminders, until late November last year. In fact, Malaysia had just emerged from a historic General Election in which the fates of millions of people at home and abroad were at stake.
Located just over 2km from the coast of Johor’s Pasir Gudang, the implementation of the ILS, according to Malaysia will restrict future developments in the vicinity.
More pressing than that, the direction in which the ILS will be leading aircraft into Singapore’s Seletar Airport over the skyline of Pasir Gudang was said to pose legal infringement upon Malaysia’s sovereignty which breaches Malaysia’s very national interest.
Minister Loke has since taken to the Malaysian public citing his ‘commitment towards defending our sovereignty and to ensure that the nation's interest is safeguarded’.
Hence on 2 Jan, Malaysia established the disputed airspace as Permanent Restricted Area for military activities only to be responded with a statement by the island Republic of Singapore: "The Restricted Area being within controlled and congested airspace will impact the existing and normal operations of aircraft transiting through the airspace”.
What is the ILS?
The ILS procedure refers to a navigational aviation facility that guides pilots to safely descend and approach the airport runway.
The ILS procedures serve to guarantee the accuracy and efficacy of flight landings into Seletar airport, which has been used for decades in Changi Airport, as per the ICAO standards.
According to Singapore, it has considered existing structures at Pasir Gudang prior to its publication which ensures that it does not impose any additional impact on other airspace users as well as businesses and residents in Johor.
It also added that there are equally existing procedures and equipment to ensure that shipping on the straits of Johor would not be affected.
The new Seletar without the ILS is incomplete
Opened on 19 Nov 2018, the new Seletar terminal managed by the Changi Airport Group under Temasek, is scheduled for commercial flights and business aviation involving passengers traveling on chartered business flights and private jets.
As Changi world-renowned international airport continues to receive growing flights into the small island state, the new Seletar was intended for the purpose of taking over Changi’s increasing inbound flight fleet and to handle all scheduled turboprop flights in to Singapore.
For years now, users such as flight operators had voiced complaints that Seletar Airport may be less attractive compared to Changi without the ILS.
“Our current [visual flight rules] approach is inevitably presenting a lot of limitations. So, we do have some flights that are diverted to Changi Airport because of low cloud and potential storms”, quoted Hawker Pacific’s vice-president for Asia, Louis Leong, in an article for aviation site Aviation Week in February 2018.
“Having the ILS would definitely make it easier for the pilots to bring aircraft in here,” he said, whose organisation was among those who urged for Seletar to use the ILS.
To this end, Malaysia had proposed a solution that Seletar could easily develop the ILS for use with its Runway 03, by leading aircraft into its compound by taking the southerly approach within the republic’s own sovereign airspace instead of cutting through Malaysia’s airspace by using the northerly approach at Runway 21.
To that, Singapore’s Ministry of Transport reverted by saying that both approaches are “necessary”, depending on wind conditions in the region.
Despite that, Singapore said it is prepared to discuss with Malaysia “in good faith”, even after Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had accused Minister Loke of using a technical excuse via the abrupt establishment of Permanent Restricted Area that had sought to “trigger demand” to change the planned flight path.
In retrospect, the safety of passengers above all else
But, all is good when both countries are willing to come together to discuss the best way to ensure the safety of human lives flying in and out of borders.
Now, why are we having a nationalistic rift worthy of tension to the point that the people’s attention must be garnered?
It lies in the method that both countries are addressing the inconveniences of past agreements, the current development aspirations for Singapore’s relentless progress, and Malaysia’s very own development interest down-south for its future, especially after a victorious change in government for its People.
New Malaysia tightens loose screws within administration that disparaged national sovereignty and interests
Rock, water, sand and now, air. Neither one stranger to political gaffes issued from both sides of the Causeway resulting in international disputes subject to public scrutiny.
Both nations were born of a lifelong rivalry dating back to the time when the Tiger of Malaya and the Lion City went their separate ways.
While Malaysia boasts itself as a sovereign country enriched with natural resources who had just survived itself from a historic triumph over ‘kleptocracy at its worst’, Singapore is the burgeoning giant intermediary in the eyes of the world, that has been connecting Southeast Asia to the rest of the world.
However now, Singapore must remember that it can no longer push things through with New Malaysia as it did with the Najib Administration or before, because things have changed - hopefully.
A meeting between Malaysia and Singapore’s featuring leading men in the Transport Ministry is now soon to be expected, which will be another interesting follow-up to this airspace saga because both nations have got some differences to resolve within historical, geographical and political context in the best interests of their People, preferably in a ‘calm and conducive atmosphere’, as noted by Dr Balakrishnan in his 8 January statement.