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Many issues remain, but leaders' retreat has paved the way for further talks

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong4/15/2019 08:00 AM GMT+08  • 6 min read
Many issues remain, but leaders' retreat has paved the way for further talks
SINGAPORE (Apr 15): Meeting for the third time since the new Pakatan Harapan government won the elections in Malaysia a year ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his counterpart Dr Mahathir Mohamad put on a show of amiability before the press, appearin
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SINGAPORE (Apr 15): Meeting for the third time since the new Pakatan Harapan government won the elections in Malaysia a year ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his counterpart Dr Mahathir Mohamad put on a show of amiability before the press, appearing not only to be open to arbitration but also to reconciliation.

At the end of their two-day ninth Singapore-Malaysia leaders’ retreat in the administrative capital of Putrajaya, the 67-year-old Lee and 93-year-old Mahathir indicated that their commitment towards a good relationship between the two nations was as strong as ever. In fact, Mahathir described Singapore-Malaysia ties as “a relation[ship] between two civilised people who do not believe in violence”.

Lee, on his part, notes that while Singapore “must expect” issues to crop up from time to time, channels of communication should be kept open, trust built and a pragmatic approach adopted taking into consideration both sides’ concerns. “Then, we can move beyond solving problems to cooperating for mutual benefit,” he says.

Both leaders seemed to have reached an accord over three prickly matters that sparked a war of words between the two countries late last year: the 1962 Water Agreement, the dispute over the Pasir Gudang/Seletar airspace, and the overlapping port limits in the Straits of Johor.

From their meeting on April 8 and 9, it was agreed that both nations’ Attorney-Generals will meet over the water issue, and they will continue to seek a resolution, including via arbitration. Singapore maintains that Malaysia had lost the right to negotiate the price of water. Malaysia disagrees, adding that no country in the world sells water on prices drawn up in the 1960s.

But the two countries reached an agreement for Singapore to withdraw the contentious Instrument Landing System (ILS) for Seletar Airport, while Malaysia will suspend the permanent Restricted Area (RA) over the Pasir Gudang airspace indefinitely. A high-level committee has already started reviewing the 1974 Operational Letter of Agreement between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore Area Control Centres concerning Singapore Arrivals, Departures and Overflights.

As for the port limits, they have also agreed to mutually suspend the implementation of their overlapping port limits in the waters of the Straits of Johor, specifically, Johor Bahru Port limits off Tanjung Piai and the Singapore Port limits off Tuas. A new joint committee will be established for the maritime boundary delimitation in the area, and negotiations on the boundaries and limitations will commence within a month.

‘Surprising turn of events’

The swift cooling-down of heated rhetoric seen in the final quarter of last year took some analysts, such as Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, aback. “Towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year, we were practically shouting at each other,” he tells The Edge Singapore. Oh was referring to the war of words that took place a mere month ago when Malaysian Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, fired off a salvo over the water deal.

Saifuddin claimed that Singapore was “reckless” in claiming that Malaysia was not upholding its end of the water bargain when the latter sought to renegotiate the prices of raw water. He was responding at the time to his Singapore counterpart, Vivian Balakrishnan, who said that Malaysia had lost the right to review water prices after choosing not to do so in 1987. Balakrishnan, meanwhile, was responding to Mahathir’s comments that “a rich country (Singapore) (cannot be) buying water from poor countries at such an unreasonable price”.

Separately, the dispute over port limits went beyond words: Both sides deployed naval vessels to stake their respective claims on the sea boundaries.

Trickle-down effect

Though the meeting between Lee and Mahathir did not lead to overtly friendly gestures such as taking selfies, as Lee and former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak did, both governments’ openness towards arbitration is heartening.

“You may not realise how amazing this is. Not many countries will agree to arbitration, but that’s the mark of how, as nations, we are both law-abiding and we will play a diplomatic game according to the rules of international law,” Oh adds. “It was a very amicable and constructive meeting and we have come to a mutual understanding. Still, overall, I am surprised it was amicable.”

“The tone of the meeting will have a trickle-down effect on the subsequent discussions among those who will be in charge of the nuts and bolts of it; the discussions will be more positive,” says Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, fellow and associate editor at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)-Yusof Ishak Institute.

He points out that the outcome of the meeting was “timely and necessary”, but not a surprise to him. To him, it was a reaffirmation of the importance of bilateral relations and spirit of good neighbourliness.

However, he also notes that the prospect of arbitration over the water issues is something to keep a close eye on. Arbitration means both parties will have to agree to the verdict even if it may not favour them. “It would not be a snap decision on Malaysia’s part. They are mindful of what happened in the Pedra Branca arbitration, which did not go in Malaysia’s favour.”

The Pedra Branca are several islets located east of the Singapore Straits that both Malaysia and Singapore laid claim to. The dispute began in 1979 and was resolved in 2008 by the International Court of Justice, which decided that Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore.

Nonetheless, Mustafa says the talks did play a very important role in encouraging a climate of negotiations to take place. However, what Mahathir intends to ­negotiate for is anyone’s guess, and insiders say he is simply resorting to his tried-and-tested methods.

A political analyst who declines to be named tells The Edge Singapore that he feels Mahathir is using the water prices as a “bargaining chip” with Singapore. “The Mahathir today is the Mahathir of yesterday. When he was prime minister, he never went to the negotiation table empty-handed. That was never his style. The same applies today. He is simply using the water issue as a negotiating tool,” the analyst says.

According to him, Mahathir has a propensity to raise issues with other countries, and that does not mean he is out to jeopardise ties. His comments on the East Coast Rail Line, blaming China for the heavy cost, did not cause the entire project to be spiked. “His statements on cancelling were simply to [get] a better negotiating position and get a better deal.”

Mahathir himself seems rather satisfied with the progress so far. “What we have not done is that we have not confronted each other or even suggested that we should resolve our problems through ­violent action like going to war with Singapore,” he told reporters at a press conference in Putrajaya after the meeting. “This is not a minor achievement.”

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