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Malaysia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah (front row, sixth from right) receiving the memorandum from 43 NGOs in support of the government's decision to ban Israeli athletes into Malaysia for the World Para Swimming Championship 2019 in July at Wisma Putra on Wednesday (16 Jan). Source: Danisha Hakeem/TOC

Malaysia to remain “steadfast in negotiating”, refuses to “compromise our interests”: Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah on bilateral disputes with Singapore

Malaysia will remain “steadfast in negotiating” with Singapore regarding the bilateral territorial disputes concerning Johor’s airspace and the maritime area off Tuas in order to safeguard the former’s sovereignty and independence, said Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.

Datuk Saifuddin told reporters after a press conference at Wisma Putra, Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Wednesday (16 Jan): “What is most important is that the discussions are going on, and I am confident that the discussions are moving in the right direction.

“We will be steadfast in negotiating. We will not compromise our interests … We have always been safeguarding our sovereignty and our independence … and we just have to continue talking to our Singaporean counterparts,” he stressed.

Datuk Saifuddin made the statement after receiving a joint memorandum from 43 NGOs in support of the Malaysian government’s decision to ban Israeli athletes from entering the country for the World Para Swimming Championships this year, in tandem with Malaysia’s stance of not having any diplomatic relations with Israel as a protest against Israel’s policies against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Responding to a query by Al Jazeera regarding whether there remains an underlying crisis between Malaysia and Singapore despite the Malaysian government’s assurance that bilateral relations between the two countries are solid, Datuk Saifuddin said: “We have to postpone one of the meetings [the annual Malaysia-Singapore Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia] … but the fact that Datuk Seri Azmin was able to continue discussing several other bilateral issues with Minister Lawrence [Wong] and Minister Vivian [Balakrishnan] shows that we are moving forward.”

“You will see that there are several specific people who are involved: Myself as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister Anthony Loke as the Minister of Transport, Minister Azmin as Minister of Economic Affairs, Datuk Seri Shahrul Ikram [Yaakob] as the Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Datuk Saifuddin noted that Attorney-General Tommy Thomas is also involved in the bilateral discussions.

The Malaysian Foreign Minister said that the persons involved were “given specific topics or issues to be discussed with our counterparts in Singapore”.

When asked to comment on the persistent entry and presence of Malaysian vessels back into the disputed territory, Datuk Saifuddin told reporters that Malaysia and Singapore have been not only been discussing the maritime area in dispute, but also other issues surrounding the territories of the two nations.

“Well, as I said, there are many issues, so we are discussing specific issues … even on disputes regarding the Johor Bahru Port Line [Limits].

“But it’s not just Johor Bahru Port Line … We would also want to talk about other maritime issues [between Malaysia and Singapore].

“Likewise, when we discuss the ILS [Instrument Landing System] at Seletar Airport, we are also discussing on the delegation of airspace management [according to] the Agreement [made in] 1974.

“So, the discussions are going on,” Datuk Saifuddin concluded.

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament on Monday (14 Jan) regarding the Republic’s decision to postpone the annual meeting: “We will always take appropriate measures to safeguard our interests. And any country dealing with Singapore must assume that it is cost-free to embark on any adventures or antics against us. There will be consequences.”

“I hope members appreciate this fine line that I’m trying to follow – to be resolute but to be calm, to quietly but clearly protect our interests. And it doesn’t mean we do not have sharp elbows,” stressed Dr Balakrishnan.

“Sometimes, it may come across as we are boringly consistent and we seem to studiously avoid chest-thumping and other manifestations of nationalism. But I would submit that this is the appropriate posture for a small tiny nation state like Singapore.”

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister to meet Johor Menteri Besar over alleged intrusion of Singapore’s territorial waters via MV Pedoman

Previously, New Straits Times reported the Foreign Minister as saying on Tuesday (14 Jan) that he will conduct a meeting with Johor’s Menteri Besar Osman Sapian regarding Singapore’s allegation that the latter, via MV Pedoman, had “encroached” into the Republic’s territorial waters in Tuas last Wednesday (8 Jan).

Speaking to reporters after announcing the appointment of Eric Paulsen as Malaysia’s representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights for the 2019-2021 term, Datuk Saifuddin said: “The meeting is being arranged. I will meet him (Osman) as soon as possible”.

Earlier on, the Malaysian Marine Department (MMD) rejected an allegation regarding the presence of its primary vessel, the MV Pedoman, in Singapore’s territorial waters, and insisted “that MV Pedoman and Polaris have always remained within Malaysian waters”.

The department’s Head of Corporate Communications Unit Yusnan Abdul Rani told Bernama in an email on Wednesday (9 Jan) that the vessel was well within the new Johor Bahru port limits, in the area where the MV Polaris vessel was.

The same day, Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian paid a visit to Malaysian Marine Department officers aboard the MV Pedoman vessel on Wednesday (9 Jan), which, according to the State Minister, is the “mother ship” of the department in the Malaysia-Singapore maritime border area.

He added in his Facebook post that the vessel’s Captain Mohamad Azlan Aziz had briefed him on the maritime territorial limits between Malaysia and the Republic, which have been a source of major contention between the two countries.

Singapore’s largest Chinese-language news outlet Lianhe Zaobao, however, reported on Thursday (10 Jan) that Mr Osman’s act of thanking the Malaysian Marine Department officers for “controlling and defending our [Malaysian] waters” can be perceived as carrying a “certain provocative meaning”.

Lianhe Zaobao also charged that Malaysia had been “invading Singapore’s territorial waters” by “suddenly unilaterally expanded the boundaries of the port of Johor Bahru” in October last year and “dispatching official boats into the dispute-prone waters” since.

Channel NewsAsia reported on Thursday (10 Jan) that according to Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), five Malaysian government vessels were present in Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas at 6pm the day before, one of them being the MV Pedoman.

The Maritime Port Authority (MPA) confirmed the presence of the five Malaysian vessels in Singapore’s waters following a reportedly fruitful meeting between the foreign affairs ministers of both nations, in response to queries from the media.

MPA added that the number of vessels went down to two on Thursday evening (10 Jan).

Previously on Tuesday (8 Jan), Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had conducted a meeting with his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah in the Republic to resolve the ongoing bilateral territorial disputes concerning maritime boundaries off Tuas in Singapore and the airspace above Pasir Gudang in Johor with the implementation of Singapore’s Instrument Landing System (ILS) from Seletar Airport.