A new maritime dispute: Issues of nationalism and sovereignty fray Malaysia-Singapore ties

As Malaysia withdraws its challenge against Singapore on the Pedra Branca ruling, another high-profile maritime spat has been ignited.


The presence of three Malaysian vessels in Singapore’s territorial waters on December 7th captured attention across the straits. In the past weeks, Singapore has witnessed 14 incursions by Malaysian government vessels into its territorial waters.

On December 9th, the Ministry of Defence conducted a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Open Mobilisation Exercise to validate the SAF’s operational readiness. As of December 17th, two Malaysian ships remained in Singapore’s waters.

Singapore launched a strong protest against Malaysia’s claim

The maritime dispute followed Malaysia’s unilateral decision on October 25th to extend the Johor Bahru port limits towards Singapore’s Tuas port, into waters claimed by Singapore. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad purports that the extension has not touched Singapore’s borders.

Malaysia has not made claims to the disputed waters since 1979.

Malaysia’s move is inconsistent with its past policies and claims. It prompted protest from the Singaporean government which denounced Malaysia’s actions a ‘serious violation’ of its sovereignty and international law.

The Republic’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Heng issued a strong caution to Malaysian vessels to leave Singapore’s waters. While Singapore has reiterated its commitment to exercising restraint on the ground and to achieving a peaceful solution to the dispute, these statements have been accompanied by more combative addendums.

Singapore has repeatedly stressed that it will not hesitate to take firm actions against intrusions in its waters and has also engaged in overt efforts to demonstrate its military capability. On the day of SAF’s Open Mobilisation Exercise, a video demonstrating Singapore’s military readiness was also released.

Malaysia also issues claims over airspace against Singapore

On December 4th, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke announced that the country will move to reclaim its ‘delegated airspace’ in southern Johor, citing concerns over national interests and sovereignty. The current arrangement delegating management of the airspace to Singapore has been in place since 1974 when both sides signed a bilateral agreement.

Observers trace the origins of the airspace spat to economic interests and competition over the status as Southeast Asia’s main airport hub. According to industry sources, Singapore’s Changi Airport, one of Asia’s biggest hubs, uses a portion of the airspace for departures and approaches, and the Republic would not want to be reliant on Malaysian management of the area.

Singapore has also experienced a long-running spat with Indonesia over its management of the airspace above Indonesian Riau islands.

The city-state has repeatedly responded that the administration of the Flight Information Region is not an issue of sovereignty but based on operational and technical considerations to ensure aviation safety. The Republic has also clarified that all Route Air Navigation Services charges that Singapore collects on behalf of Indonesia are remitted to the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) Indonesia. The issue continues to be periodically brought up in Indonesian politics, accompanied by a nationalistic desire to reclaim management over the airspace.

If Malaysia’s recent move mirrors the Indonesian experience, the budding airspace spat may well become a persistent issue in the Malaysia-Singapore relations.

Singapore’s preservation of control over the southern Johor airspace is crucial for efficient air traffic control and constitutes an important part of its strategy to be Southeast Asia’s main airport hub.

Parties in the airspace dispute should not be hasty in framing the issue in terms of opposing national interests. Cross-border airspace management does not infringe on sovereignty, and it is not rare for countries to have part of their airspace managed by other countries. Malaysia, for example, also manages Indonesian airspace in the waters around Kuching Airport.

Cross-border airspace management can be conducive to international cooperation and the attainment of mutual benefits. Excessive focus on nationalistic desires in this area could harm Singaporean-Malaysia ties.

Protecting Singapore’s sovereign rights has been a pillar of its foreign policy

Malaysia has suggested that it is unable to accede to the Republic’s proposal to a return to the status quo in place before October 25th, 2018. Both sides are unlikely to agree to withdraw their vessels, whose presence asserts and their respective territorial claims.

Malaysia has stated that its ships would remain in the area pending negotiations and decisions, just as Singapore’s vessels are present.

The Republic’s mired past with its regional neighbours, its place as a small island-nation, its limited resources and lack of a natural hinterland have culminated in a persisting sense of vulnerability rooted deep within the ‘little red dot’.

This sense of vulnerability has played out through an assertive foreign policy that rests on a firm demonstration of Singapore’s sovereignty against any perceived external infringement on its national autonomy.

Singapore’s blunt response in the ongoing maritime spat should not come as a surprise to Malaysia and other observers. This firm, almost pugnacious, assertion of its sovereignty has been the cornerstone of the island nation’s road to survival for the past five decades.

An example is the infamous 1994 case of Michael Fay. The 18-year-old American teenager was arrested for vandalising cars and stealing road signs in Singapore. Despite President Clinton’s protests the teenager received six lashes with the cane for his crimes. Despite the prospect of an international row and damaged US-Singaporean relations, the Singaporean government remained undeterred and carried out the sentence in May of 1994.

The Republic’s past foreign policy record suggests that it is unlikely to cave to unilateral, external demands which undermine its sovereignty. Its leaders are likely to maintain their position in calling for a return to the pre-October 25th status quo in the maritime dispute.

Singapore prefers to resolve the spat through negotiations but is willing to resort to an international dispute settlement

On December 13th, Singapore announced it had filed a declaration under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to prevent unilateral commencement of third-party arbitration or adjudication on maritime boundary disputes involving the country.

Singapore’s move reflects its present preference to resolve the maritime boundary dispute with Malaysia through bilateral negotiations.

The delicate state of Malaysia-Singapore relations in recent months is also likely to have motivated Singapore’s preference for face-to-face negotiations — especially with the airspace dispute on the horizon.

With its sovereignty at stake, Singapore is unlikely to make any significant compromises. The ball will be in Malaysia’s court to make concessions. If Malaysia also stands firm on its maritime boundary claims, bilateral talks will fail to produce a resolution.

While dialogues will be conducive for confidence-building between the parties in dispute, an international third-party dispute settlement procedure may well be necessary for its resolution.

The Republic has indicated it is prepared to submit the matter to an appropriate international third-party for settlement, on terms mutually agreed by all parties, should negotiations be unfruitful.

This was the path taken by Malaysia and Singapore in 2003 when the Pedra Branca territorial dispute was brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled in favour of Singapore in 2008, however, the dispute lasted several decades before a resolution was found.

The maritime dispute illuminates the contours of Malaysia-Singapore ties

Malaysia-Singapore relations have seen more than a few metaphorical descriptions. Most recently, Malaysian PM Mahathir had referred to the two neighbours as ‘twins’. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy is that of a divorce spat.

The relations between the two neighbours once joined in a union in 1963, are reminiscent of a messy divorce. Following the 1965 separation, Malaysia and Singapore have been caught in an undeclared rivalry, interspersed with attempts at bilateral reconciliation.

Since the change in Malaysian government in May this year, Malaysia-Singapore ties have been increasingly thorny. From the postponement of the high-speed rail line to the renegotiation of water prices, bilateral relations have been marred by tensions that came to a head with the presence of Malaysian vessels in Singapore territorial waters in the past weeks.

The spike in bilateral issues in recent months has led to mutual accusations of political tactics and manipulation to reap domestic political benefits. Singapore’s former ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan opined that Malaysia’s political uncertainty has driven the use of Singapore as a bogeyman to hold things together.

Malaysia’s former foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar has also claimed that the boundary disputes are being used as nationalistic issues for Singapore’s looming general elections.

Both Malaysia and Singapore have expressed their commitment to attaining an ‘amicable solution’ to the dispute. An amicable resolution will depend on the ability of the two neighbours to prioritise their fraternal ties as twins before the enmity of a failed marriage. It remains a test of their political will to ensure that they do not lose sight of the larger picture, both within and beyond the Straits.