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Sg-Msia relations: Where’s the red line?

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan gave MP Ang Wei Neng the shortest answer during the debate on his statement on Singapore-Malaysia ties earlier today. Mr Ang had noted that plenty of Singaporeans shop, eat and do business up north, so how should they react or act now with the spat going on. Dr Balakrishnan replied that it was for Mr Ang to express himself. Then turned and sat down on his seat.

At the outset, it does seem like a silly question. Surely, we don’t need the G to tell us how to act or react? But then again, what if our reactions or actions do more damage to whatever behind-the-scenes wrangling that is going on between two countries? After all, there’s been plenty of mixed messaging. So The Straits Times today for example said Singapore welcomes the easing of tensions, while other media chose to angle on Singapore’s protest note to Malaysia. Should we “relax” – or get angry?

Going by what Dr Balakrishnan said in Parliament earlier today, we should get angry. (But that’s just me).

Here’s the narrative, in my words.

It was Firefly which wanted Seletar airport to be fitted with the Instrument Landing System or ILS. That’s because the Malaysian authorities require that its airlines (Firefly is a subsidiary of Malaysian Airlines) use airports which have this radar system which is supposed to be safer for planes landing and taking off. Singapore obliged, and let Malaysia know one year ago, but had no response until last November. That’s a very last-minute reaction considering that Firefly was supposed to operate in December. In any case, Firefly couldn’t fly. No license from Malaysia.

The argument from Malaysia, especially Transport Minister Anthony Loke, was that the planes would be flying over Pasir Gudang which meant that no tall building could be built there. He didn’t say that for decades, private planes and charter flights had been winging their way along the same route, without ILS. They’re not banging into buildings there, a few of which are  taller than HDB blocks here. So what’s this about restricting the port’s development?

So aviation authorities on both sides met in late November and managed to iron out some things, including how ILS will start from Jan 3 even if Firefly couldn’t fly. Then someone up north pulled a strange stunt, putting out a note to airmen about some restrictions surrounding the air space over Pasir Gudang. This was later withdrawn for an even more draconian note, delivered on Christmas Day, stating that the area within 2,000 ft and 5,000 ft was now for military use only. That means that planes would have to make a high jump at take-off or landing.

This “permanent restricted area” edict  was supposed to take effect on Jan 2, a day before ILS kicked in. What this means is that normal flights in and out of Seletar airport were affected, unless they got approval from Malaysia. The minister didn’t say how big the disruption was, but this continued till Jan 8, when bilateral talks led to the suspension of the restriction.

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All these provocations put paid to Malaysian talk about easing tensions earlier. At sea, Malaysia never did completely withdraw its vessels either. If you recall, it extended its port limits in the sea off Tuas so much that it even exceeded its old 1974 claims on territorial waters. Singapore did a tit-for-tat – and more. It lodged an application with the United Nations Law of the Sea to ensure that any country which wants to re-draw boundaries would have to consult Singapore, and vice versa. This prevents any unilateral application to a third-party to recognise border changes.

The end of 2018 was a busy time for Singapore ministers. Dr Balakrishnan disclosed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was worried enough to send Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to Kuala Lumpur to speak to premier Mohamad Mahathir. He didn’t disclose the contents of the meeting. But I daresay it was to call out Malaysia for not practising what it preaches. Politely.

I can only assume that since Jan 9, planes from Seletar have re-started flights over Pasir Gudang, without the ILS. Suspending the radar system was Singapore’s quid pro quo for Malaysia de-restricting the area. Both suspensions would be  for a month, and Dr Balakrishnan didn’t say what would happen after that. Presumably more kinks would be ironed out as Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan was supposed to meet his counterpart later this month. I would give my left arm to be a fly on a wall and to ask Mr Loke what MP Lee Bee Wah asked in Parliament: “Did you miscalculate height, Mr Loke? Or were you flipping prata?”

But even while planes might have started flying, the sea was getting crowded. Notwithstanding the Jan 8 goodwill demonstrated by the countries’ foreign ministers, Singapore was shocked to read about five Malaysian vessels in Singapore waters the very next day. Then there was the public spectacle of the Johor Mentri Besar Omar Sapian on one of the boats. This was happening even after the two ministers had agreed to set up a joint working committee to sort out the maritime issues. What sort of provocation was that? What were the Malaysians up to? Was this a case of good cop, bad cop? Or left hand not knowing what the right hand was up to? Insincerity or plain insubordination? These questions were asked by a few MPs including Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Pritam Singh.

Mr Balakrishnan didn’t reply directly except to say that he got along with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and Economics Minister Azmin Ali. I can only surmise that it is another way of saying that the Johor Government was acting on its own or without the consent of the Federal Government. Which of course makes you angry when you think about how Singapore had always acceded to Johor’s request for treated water whenever there was a drought or shortage. The last time was just earlier this month. One MP asked if this gesture was even appreciated. Mr Balakrishnan took the opportunity to expand on the neighbourly approach which Singapore had always taken, giving three times as much water to Johor (16million gallons a day) than what was stated in the water agreements (5mgd).

Perhaps, this is the nub of the matter: We are so…nice. Not too long ago, we agreed to postpone the construction of the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Railway at Malaysia’s request for a small “abortive cost” of $15million. But what seemed like a good start to a relationship with the Pakatan Harapan Government in KL looks more like a mirage.

Mr Balakrishnan admits that Singapore is “consistently boring” in its diplomatic approach. It doesn’t engage in megaphone diplomacy, and abides by agreements made. But this doesn’t mean that it would take every knock lying down, he said. It has “sharp elbows” and will hit back, he said. He gave the example of the cancellation of the joint meeting on Iskandar investments which was supposed to take place today. Even KL acknowledged that it would be imprudent to have such a meeting at this time.

He was replying to MP Alex Yam who was blunt about how Malaysia seemed to be ignoring Singapore’s repeated admonitions to “don’t do this”. What can Singapore do, he asked, if Malaysia continued to display such disregard and kept “crossing red lines”?

(Nobody talked about military action to safeguard sovereignty but you can tell that the words were floating in the airspace in Parliament.)

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Hmm, was a red line crossed in the first place? The minister was put in a bit of a spot. lines should be drawn only after much deliberation and circumspection, he said. Some negotiations are better done behind closed doors. Yup, I agree. An open commitment to a red line would mean that action would have to be taken if they were crossed – or the red lines might as well be tomato sauce.

Instead, Mr Balakrishnan  spoke generally about the need for a strong armed forces and Total Defence and even suggested that such questions be directed at Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

I think people can’t help asking what Singapore would do if more and more Malaysian vessels make Singapore waters their home. Mr Balakrishnan kept insisting that problems between the two countries will always crop up because of our shared historical baggage – and that no one should be surprised. I think the surprise is that the Malaysians would go so far as to destroy their own airline and test the resilience of the Singapore Navy for I-don’t-know-what benefit.

We might be able to come up with Newater to safeguard our water supply but we can’t move our geographical position.

All I can see is bullying.

As far as this citizen is concerned, that red line is looming.




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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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