KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday (Jan 18) denied giving the green light for Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian to visit a Malaysian vessel anchored in Singapore waters.
This comes a day after Mr Osman said he had obtained “unofficial blessing” from Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and his deputy before his “unauthorised visit” to the Pedoman vessel on Jan 9.
The visit – a day after the foreign ministers of both countries held positive talks on the maritime dispute – led Singapore to postpone joint ministerial committee talks on Iskandar Malaysia.
In a press release, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry said it “wishes to set the record straight”.
“Upon learning of the planned visit from a Malaysian enforcement agency on the morning of Jan 9 itself, ministry officials, under the advice of the foreign minister, immediately and repeatedly contacted the chief minister’s office and conveyed a message not to proceed with the visit,” said the release.
“The ministry was concerned that such a visit would be counter-productive after the positive and constructive outcome of the bilateral meetings between the foreign minister and the foreign minister of Singapore just the day before.”
The ministry added: “When contacted, the chief minister at the time was already onboard a vessel and heading towards the Johor Bahru port.”
It also said it wants to focus on the working group that Malaysia and Singapore had agreed to set up following the Jan 8 meeting between the two foreign ministers.
“The ministry wishes to concentrate its efforts on the working group and looks forward to hosting the first meeting at the end of this month, a testament of its commitment to strengthen bilateral relations with Singapore based on equality and mutual respect,” it said.
On Thursday, Mr Osman was quoted as saying by the Malay Mail that he had received “unofficial blessing” from Wisma Putra before visiting the vessel.
“They did not stop me at all from visiting the area,” he said.
The chief minister said he was unfazed by the criticisms, adding that his actions have been supported by grassroots leaders.
He noted that he was not only Johor’s chief minister, but also the chairman of the state’s security council. His role in the council required him to personally understand the maritime dispute, said Mr Osman.
Singapore had described the “unauthorised visit” to the Pedoman as “a provocative act” that went against the spirit of the agreement by both countries to resolve bilateral issues in a calm and constructive manner.
Both countries have been embroiled in an airspace and maritime dispute.
Malaysian government vessels have made repeated incursions into Singapore territorial waters in recent months, after Malaysia extended the Johor Bahru port limits in October, encroaching into Singapore territorial waters off Tuas.
Singapore has protested the port limit extension and the movements of the vessels. Singapore’s Transport Ministry also extended Singapore’s port limits off Tuas on Dec 6 in response.
The two neighbours have, however, taken steps to try and resolve the issues.
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On Monday, Singapore’s Dr Balakrishnan said in a ministerial statement in Parliament that both sides must act in “good faith” to overcome bilateral issues.
Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen also said in Parliament that while Singapore’s security agencies have the capability to compel intruding Malaysian government vessels to leave, they have been ordered for the time being to “exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions”.
On Wednesday, Malaysian Minister of Economic Affairs Mohamed Azmin Ali told Channel NewsAsia that the momentum of bilateral ties is “very positive”.
Mr Azmin noted that there were “issues that we have to deal with”, but he did not want “a particular statement by any side” to derail the main objective of both governments.
On Thursday, Malaysia’s former foreign minister Anifah Aman also weighed in on the issue and urged the relevant parties not to indulge in any provocative action.
In a press statement, he noted that during his tenure as foreign minister, both countries had also faced challenges but always overcame them in a “calm and effective” manner.
He said that those who did not have a proper understanding of the background of bilateral ties should not make any comment without considering the consequences.
“If a resolution cannot be achieved, other efforts will be taken to bring the issue to an international court or tribunal,” he added.
“These efforts will be carried out in a prudent and wise manner.”
“Singapore is one of Malaysia’s partners and a close ally in championing a common stand on multilateral and international issues. These values and elements should be taken into account in establishing a healthy diplomatic relationship,” Mr Anifah said.
“Let us not allow our egos to destroy what we have built thus far.”