April 22, 2021 House of Trust

Malaysia – Singapore Air and Maritime Boundaries Dispute

     Malaysia’s relations with Singapore witnessed a decline recently. This is due to the renewed tensions triggered by unresolved bilateral disputes over their air and maritime boundaries. The reemergence of these disputes represents the latest of a series of long standing bilateral problems which have periodically resurfaced and affected Malaysia – Singapore ties, as both countries seek to recalibrate their bilateral relationship, post 14th General Election. This latest round of Malaysia-Singapore debacle revolves around two complex sets of boundary issues.

Firstly, the contested maritime boundary over the recent extension of the port limits of Johor Bahru by Malaysia.

     Singapore claims that Malaysia has allegedly extended beyond and into the former’s territorial waters. This maritime boundary dispute has been subsequently exacerbated by their mutual allegations of one another’s vessel encroachments in the contested waters. In addition, Singapore also decides to extend the Singapore Port Limits off Tuas as a counter-response to Malaysia’s earlier unilateral extension. 

The second issue relates to their diplomatic spat over air boundaries, namely the recently stipulated intention of the Malaysian government to negotiate the retaking of airspace over southern Johor.

     This decision was ostensibly made in protest of Singapore’s publication of the Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures for its Seletar Airport, which will impact businesses and residents in Johor, due to the radar system’s requirement for planes landing in Seletar to make their landing approach over Malaysia’s southernmost tip in the Johor state. 

       Although the two issues have since triggered assertive albeit rhetorical responses and counter-responses from both governments in reinforcing their respective positions, efforts to simultaneously deescalate bilateral tension while seeking a return to the negotiation table have likewise taken place, for the sake of safeguarding good neighbourly relations and their deepening socio-economic interdependence. 

        In my opinion, the decision to extend the Johor Bahru Port Limits is unequivocally within Malaysia’s sovereign maritime-territorial rights. This has been defined and conducted legally in accordance with the related provisions on the “limits of territorial sea” found in both our national laws as well as international maritime laws, namely the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). Therefore, the newly extended Johor Bahru port limits are well within Malaysia’s “territorial sea” as per defined in Peta Baru Malaysia 1979which complies with the related UNCLOS provisions, and as such, the Malaysian government can indeed exercise its sovereign right to (re)delineate any port limit in its territorial sea.

      Conversely, Singapore’s allegation that the newly delineated Johor Bahru Port Limits has extended into its territorial waters is inaccurate. This is because the Republic’s unilaterally defined adjacent maritime boundary is based on revised baselines resulting from its extensive land reclamation which has been carried out almost to the outer limits of its territorial sea. 

       According to UNCLOS, land reclamation conducted by any littoral or maritime state on its terrestrial features does not give it the legal right to extend its baselines, and consequently utilize such revised baselines to extend its maritime boundaries. As such, Singapore’s territorial sea remains unchanged, despite the Republic’s extensive land reclamation on its northern shores off the Johor on the Tebrau Strait. 

       As for the ILS issue and “delegated airspace” over Southern Johor, it is only natural for the Malaysian government to seek appropriate measures to protect our national interests, and specifically the interests of the people of Johor. This is especially so, since the flight path designated by the newly proposed ILS for Seletar Airport would gravely affect height restrictions, to the detriment of socio-economic development potentials in Pasir Gudang specifically and Johor Bahru, generally. Therefore, it would be in Malaysia’s national security interests to regain control of the “delegated airspace” in southern Johor gradually, (in consideration of good neighbourly relations with Singapore), since the current arrangement may come with it potential national security implications.

       However I would like to applaud the “timely and rational” decision by both governments to “de-escalate” the current situation, and to amicably resolve the bilateral disputes through diplomatic channels. Both countries are inseparable from each other due to our geographical proximity as neighbours, which not only naturally bounds us together, but also generates a high degree of interdependence.

Hence, it is in our mutual interests to foster a peaceful, sustainable and harmonious bilateral relationship, for the sake of our national interests and well-being. 

*This article has also appeared in Malay Mail and New Straits Times 

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