Khaw Boon Wan tells Malaysian ships to back off as Singapore expands port limits

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Minister urges dialogue on maritime row, but vows firm action to protect sovereignty.

Malaysia should "back off" and leave Singapore's waters.

That was the firm message from Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday(Dec 6), as he urged Singapore's closest neighbour to pursue dialogue instead of "blatant provocation" to resolve the row over port limits and territorial waters.

Mr Khaw revealed that in the past two weeks, there have been 14 incursions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore's waters.

Three of these vessels were still in Singapore territory yesterday, he told the media. Singapore decided to expand its own port limits in response to Malaysia's action, he said.

And while the Republic has so far responded with restraint against the "aggressive actions" by the Malaysian vessels in its waters, it will not hesitate to act firmly to protect its territory and sovereignty, if necessary, Mr Khaw said.

"My main message today is... Back off. Leave our waters while we pursue sit-down dialogues and try to resolve it."

Mr Khaw outlined how the incursions stemmed from Malaysia's unilateral decision in October to extend the Johor Baru port limits into Singapore's territorial waters, a move which the Republic protested.

"Malaysian government vessels have since been continually intruding into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas," Mr Khaw said.

Singapore's expansion of its port limits, with immediate effect, is well within its own territorial waters, he added. "It is... a reaction to this provocative action on the part of Malaysia, but we do it properly, in accordance with international law, and certainly do not infringe on our neighbour's rights."

In the meantime, he added, Singapore's security agencies will continue to patrol the area and respond to unauthorised activities.

They have so far responded with restraint. "But Singapore cannot allow our sovereignty to be violated, or new facts on the ground to be created," Mr Khaw said. "Therefore, if it becomes necessary, we will not hesitate to take firm actions against intrusions and unauthorised activities in our waters to protect our territory and sovereignty."

Mr Khaw noted that since at least 1999, Singapore has been exercising its jurisdiction in the waters now covered by the recent extension of the Johor Baru port limits.

"Malaysia has never laid claim to these waters, or protested our actions there. Now, out of the blue, Malaysia is claiming these territorial waters that belong to Singapore," he said.

"This is a blatant provocation and a serious violation of our sovereignty and international law."

On Wednesday, Malaysia argued that Singapore cannot claim the area as its territorial waters on the basis of its reclamation works in Tuas in recent years.

But Mr Khaw responded that Malaysia had published a map in 1979, when no reclamation in Tuas had taken place. The new, purported, Johor Baru port limits now extend even beyond Malaysia's own territorial claim line, into Singapore's waters.

Malaysia had replied to say its vessels were patrolling its own territorial waters - a claim Singapore rejected. Malaysia had also proposed that the two sides meet to resolve the issue. "Singapore naturally agrees to this and will follow up," Mr Khaw said.

But he added: "This violation of Singapore's sovereignty is a serious new issue in our bilateral relations with Malaysia," he said, adding that Singaporeans have to be fully aware of these developments.

"While we seek cooperation and friendship with other countries, we must never let other countries take advantage of us. When our national interests are challenged, we have to quietly but firmly stand our ground and stay united as one people."

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