Singapore and Malaysia can have a win-win future, says Transport Minister

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Singapore's Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan says he senses younger Malaysian leaders want fresh relationship with Singapore, free of any baggage.

Having been in government service for 40 years, and observed the ups and downs of Singapore-Malaysia relations, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan found the events of the past few days eerily familiar.

As the disagreements over territorial waters and airspace management flared, seemingly out of nowhere, Mr Khaw, who is also the Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, had the feeling he had seen it all before.

"I am very saddened by this development... and I couldn't help feeling a sense of deja vu," he said yesterday (Dec 6), referring to Malaysia's decision to unilaterally expand the Johor Baru port limits in a manner that encroached into Singapore's territorial waters, and to send its enforcement vessels into these waters.

Mr Khaw revealed that from Nov 24 to Dec 5, there have been 14 incursions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore's waters. This happened when the two sides appeared to have turned a corner in their ties.

He said: "When I discussed the high-speed rail (HSR) project with (Malaysia's Economic Affairs) Minister Azmin Ali, I had a distinct feeling that the young ministers in Malaysia want a fresh relationship with Singapore, without any past baggage.

"There is so much we can gain, working together. I believe the citizens on both sides of the Causeway also expect the younger leadership of both sides to work together for a brighter, win-win future."

That is why for the HSR project, Singapore chose not to exercise the full legal extent of the agreement that it had signed with Malaysia, he said.

There were no provisions in the original deal for a deferment of the HSR line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, citing his country's financial constraints after the new government was elected on May 9, wanted to put the project on hold.

Mr Khaw said: "We sat down, thought through what exactly are their concerns and constraints, and creatively worked out an alternative way to allow Malaysia to defer the high-speed rail project and all in the spirit of bilateral cooperation."

Before territorial waters and airspace made the headlines, the issue of water had also cropped up, with Tun Dr Mahathir saying that he wanted to increase the price of raw water supply to Singapore by more than 10 times. This was despite a water agreement between the two countries being in place.

Dr Mahathir had also recently revived the idea of a crooked bridge to replace the Causeway, an idea he had mooted before he retired from his first stint as prime minister in 2003. The project - which would see a six-lane S-shaped highway for vessels to pass under - was dropped by his successor Abdullah Badawi, which led to Dr Mahathir opposing him.

Mr Khaw was asked if these episodes - reviewing the HSR and the price of water, reviving the idea of a crooked bridge to replace the Causeway, and the latest rows over airspace and territorial waters - were isolated incidents or whether there was something bigger in play.

"You can draw your own conclusion," he said.

"Is there a pattern? I hope not," he added. "But having been in service for so many years... I have this sense of the feeling of deja vu."

"But I hope (this is not a pattern) because I always take an optimistic approach," he added.

Mr Khaw said that he was not in favour of involving any third party at this point to resolve the current maritime dispute.

"I think we should try to resolve it bilaterally, you know, even before you think about bringing in third parties. But the key point is, I think, let's do it professionally, do it with mutual respect, and good sense I am sure will prevail."

Mr Khaw stressed that Malaysia and Singapore had a lot to gain by working together. They could cooperate on regional and global markets, tourism, manufacturing, logistics and even transport hubs.

"Why must we pursue a destructive path, beggar thy neighbour? What for? When, if we work together, there are so many things we can achieve together," he said.

At the same time, he was clear that Singaporeans had to be kept apprised of the latest developments. "While we seek cooperation and friendship with other countries, we must never let other countries take advantage of us," said Mr Khaw.

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