Saturday, December 8, 2018

Commentary of Malaysia Singapore border dispute: Beware of 'grey zone' conflicts

There was no sign of the rough patch in Malaysia-Singapore ties over air and sea space, looking at the tenor of our bilateral defence relations which enjoyed a good run this November.

Up until recently, the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM, Malaysian Armed Forces) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) continued to build on longstanding ties, thanks to a packed calendar of events that gave personnel from both countries many professional and informal opportunities to know one another better.

With this week’s sudden turn of events that put border security in the spotlight, ATM and SAF personnel who invested time and effort to forge warm and friendly relations may wonder if it was all for nought. 

On Tuesday, Malaysia said it wanted to take back control of airspace over South Johor, which the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation had delegated to Singapore and which the Republic had been managing for decades.

That same day, Singapore lodged a strong protest with Malaysia over its move to extend the Johor Bahru port limits into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas. Singapore officials also revealed that Malaysian government vessels had made 14 incursions into Singapore's territorial waters in the prior two weeks.

And so, like a bolt from the blue, the goodwill established between two armed forces has been overshadowed as the neighbours shoot diplomatic notes, claims and counter-claims at one another.

The ATM and SAF staged two war games successfully last month. The 24th edition of Exercise Semangat Bersatu (which means Unity in Spirit), held from 18 to 28 November, involved 980 personnel from both armies who trained together in Johor.

From 26 November to 3 December, Exercise Malapura saw some 600 personnel from the Royal Malaysian Navy and Republic of Singapore Navy come together to practise the planning of naval operations and deployment of warships, helicopters and warplanes for maritime security scenarios in the Malacca Strait.

On a broader front, the Malaysian Army hosted the 28th ASEAN Armies Rifle Meet in Melaka for marksmen from the 10 ASEAN nations to pit their skills against one another in friendly competition. Army chiefs from all ASEAN members attended the event, which had the theme “Fostering Camaraderie” as its call to action and from the smiles and handshakes seen, everyone lived up to the spirit of the annual shooting meet.

More informally, army ties benefitted from Malaysia’s hosting of Eksesais Joint Adventure Training in Pahang from 26 to 29 November. The army exercise – which was actually a series of team-bonding games - saw about 50 personnel from both armies get to know one another through outdoor activities like hiking and beach games.

While  the games  at the political and diplomatic fronts augur well for relations, other realities can cloud the positive picture. It is thus timely to remember certain cardinal principles in international relations.  

First, ponder the imponderable. Ties between countries can deteriorate suddenly without warning. As we witnessed from the good outing the ATM and SAF enjoyed recently, external forces can reset relations overnight. One need not live a distrustful, paranoid life because scenario planning that helps develop drawer plans for imponderable scenarios should allow everyone to sleep better at night. 

Above all, continue to build on friendships at all levels despite the atmospherics – as the ATM and SAF recently demonstrated.

Second, be aware of grey-zone conflicts. This is a metaphorical state of being between war and peace, where one country may aim to win either political or territorial gains associated with overt aggression using military or paramilitary forces without crossing the threshold of open warfare with its rival.

Malaysia’s deployment of Jabatan Laut (Marine Department) and coast guard vessels is a classic example of how gray-zone rivalries pan out and mirrors the aggressive moves made by coast guard forces of certain countries who try to assert authority in the South China Sea.
Relations between some countries are easy to figure out. Russia-Ukraine, Saudi Arabia-Qatar and to a lesser extent Turkey-Greece are examples of pairings where diplomats shoulder the burden of historical baggage that stirs continued enmity.

As for our Little Red Dot, bilateral spats should provide a wellspring of teachable moments for successive generations of Singaporeans to learn the difference between rhetoric and realpolitik. The ongoing border issues over maritime borders off Tuas and air flight zones over Seletar only serve to expand Singapore’s bank of stories for national education classes.

Finally, think long term. Coming back to a defence-related example, the Semangat Bersatu army exercise would not be what it is today if army officers gave up building rapport at the first rebuff. 

Malaysia’s hosting of the 1st Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment in Kluang, Johor, is an achievement that the exercise planners could only dream of when Singapore hosted the first of the war games in May 1989. 

When it came to Malaysia’s turn in October 1989, Singapore had to fly its soldiers to Sarawak as the federation was not ready to see SAF troops train in Johor. 

It took years before the trust and comfort level reached the point where SAF troops could step on Malaysian soil in the peninsula for a bilateral exercise. Indeed, many of the 1 SIR regulars and full-time national servicemen who took part in the recent war games were not even born when the groundwork was laid nearly three decades ago.

So never allow temporary irritants to distract one from gunning for long-term good. Army leaders from Malaysia and Singapore showed what can be accomplished over decades with continued efforts to build friendship and trust.

Stormy ties? Just wait, years if need be, and let the irritants eventually fade out.

Indeed, Singapore’s Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan sounded a similar note this week when he urged people from both sides of the Causeway to look ahead. 

Mr Khaw 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.”


Locust said...

This is typical Mahathir. The PH current in all frankness has not lived up to its pre-election hype. It has not fulfilled all promises - which nation on earth can tolerate the winning party telling them after winning the election that they made empty promises because they assumed they will not win - basically saying they lied. Malaysia is facing a lot of problems - they are in debt and their deficit grew. Racial unity us in doubt - malays are going back to UMNO. They have had to beg for soft loans overseas. The spat with Singapore is a distraction. However, they have not counted on Singapore being firm - somehow Mahathir and the new leadership are realizing how powerful and more capable Singapore has become since he last became PM. Now, they are trying to extricate themselves via a "cease and desist" proposal after Singapore basically gave them the middle finger and grinned (showing a few fangs).

My friends and I are dismayed and angry. It cannot be business as usual. Singapore has been too nice. Ties must be downgraded starting with the reduction of our investments. Call off bilateral talks for the time being.

In a way, i do pity Malaysians. On one hand, they would like to see him as a saviour. On the other hand, he is the cause for many of Malaysias problems. As Paul Keating once said - Mahathir is a recalcitrant. I would like to add juvenile delinquent to that mix.

Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea, etc. all started industrializing around the same time. Only Malaysia has failed to successfully industrialize - what happen to Vision 2020? Mahathir is crafting a false tale to hide his failures.

TNI kabur naik Taksi said...

Dr M is brave leader.. Airspce belong to malysia. Wht s the problm if msia want to reclaim their airspace?..if mysia use sg airspce of coz sg will protest too.. Tell me, in our history, which case msian seize sg land and airspace???..never. u are the thief. Absolutely

Sg extend tuas port near to mysian's border.then sg water getting smaller.not enough for ur ship to manuver. msian boat only maneuver in their territory.then sg claim mysian boats made intrusion..its fact.

I hope someday we gnna war..the bullets will teach u how to respect others territory..or u will never learn?

Locust said...

^ With folks like you up north (i presume), we only need wait for you to self destruct.

tragickingdom said...

Those who took the time to examine the map that was circulated by our government may like to note that the red line does not join the green line:

sepecatgr1a said...

Any illegal encroachment into the territorial waters of any country is in itself a very serious violation of international law. Using maritime vessels from its government state agencies to intrude & even occupy another country’s territorial waters for any length of time is nothing short of conduct normally associated with that of a rogue nation.

What prompted this kind of insidious behavior is unclear as there have been no major differences between Singapore and Malaysia in recent years.
However, there is one major variable which has come into play. That is the recent overthrow of the more than 50 year reign of the previous Malaysian government by the new Pakatan Harapan government .

It is very clear that the new Malaysian government had deliberately carried out this blatant and highly provocative act against Singapore with apparently no good reason. However, these kinds of tactics are reminiscent of governments trying to galvanize a nation to focus attention away from major internal problems and issues.

One example was the then Argentina military junta led by the military dictator General Galtieri in 1982. Argentina’s claims of sovereignty over the Falklands had been simmering for decades. Domestic economic stagnation & civil unrest prompted the junta from the very ill advised invasion of the Falklands.

It is instructive to note that Malaysian media including the newspapers give minimal coverage to this major crisis unfolding between the close neighbors.
The Malaysian newspapers I read only report selected portions of Singapore’s responses to Malaysian claims.
To date I have not seen key news which are most relevant to Malaysia’s claims
& Singapore’s responses which include :-

the time line of claims & protests over the past 50 years
graphics / maps detailing the extent of these claims

My own conversations with Malaysians across the causeway paint a picture of a minor dispute with Singapore protesting the extension of Johor port limits & of allegations of Malaysian intrusions into Singapore territorial waters. Apparently where ordinary Malaysians are concerned they are totally unaware of a major crisis
between Singapore & Malaysia.
This is in complete contrast to the Singapore government’s dissemination of all the
relevant facts leading up to this crisis initiated by Malaysia. Do note that all previous claims & protests never involved the intrusion or occupation of Singapore territorial waters by Malaysian government state agency vessels.

We can only guess that the intention was to try to elicit the standard maritime response of removing or arresting violating vessels by the maritime forces of Singapore thereby creating a major incident. Singapore has exercised incredible restraint in this matter. It is perhaps testament to Singapore reacting very calmly to a very ill advised Malaysian foray into violating international law, breaking established norms of responsibility and ethical behavior by nation states.

One must be reminded that countries routinely seize illegally encroaching vessels such as fishing trawlers and also imprison the violators. Non compliance to warnings in some instances result in vessel rammings and shots fired.

It is ludricrous that Malaysia made the 28 Oct 2018 claim on Singapore’s established territorial waters and then promptly sent government agency vessels to intrude and occupy them and subsequently advised Singapore to negotiate this new claim.

The clear path to resolution of any dispute is through discussion and negotiation.
Thuggish behavior is unprofessional, uncivilized & totally unwarranted.

Singaporeans urge Malaysia for remove the offending Malaysian vessels.

Observer said...

It is clear that the Malaysians wanted to achieve some gains here. In their calculation, they probably thought they do not have a price to pay and they could not be more wrong. In any case, let's not presume that their administration is daft and they know the merits of their case against Singapore. What is their chance of winning when this goes to ICJ? What will be the cost to them financially and what kind of repercussions it will have on the ruling party if they lost? I do not see how this can be an advantage to the Malaysians if this matter is brought to court. IF that is the case, their end game is to try to settle this with us WITHOUT going to court. But they miscalculated and now they are trapped in a no-win situation.

In fact,Malaysia has far greater problems than meets the eye. Many of their country men felt a new sense of hope when PH win the last election. But it is a folly to consider an anomaly as a constant. Last election was more about what they are voting against than what they are voting for. Look at anti-ICERD rally in KL, has the country changed that much since the last election? It is naive to think it has. The biggest winners of the anti-ICERD rally last weekend are those who get a taste of what they can gain playing the race card and it is unlikely they they stop at that. Economically, aside from natural resources, where else is Malaysia heading? The signs are evident as the country divide among itself, it will fracture from within. There is nothing Tun can do about this and there is nothing PH can do about this. Malaysia will cease to exist as a federation in a decade or two.

LKY is wrong. There will not be a federation for Singapore to go to. We may in fact, have to deal with a divided Malaya, which may actually be good for people at both side of the causeway.

Locust said...

I think David brought up a brilliant point abt grey conflict areas. Whilst saf is arguably one of the best in the region, do we need to augment the police coast guard with bigger machines? I am not talking about a new fleet of warships but perhaps a small number of larger OPVs (80m to 90m perhaps) which would come in handy in just these types of situations wherein a naval ship can be viewed as being excessive or even inadvertently raise tensions. If you look at some of our neighbours, they are adding larger boats to their coast guards. In peacetime, they can support the LMVs.

Shawn C said...

I was wondering what the gain for this strategy was, and with the latest statement from Dr. M I can now see how he’s going to play it. This is solely a manufactured dispute by the Malaysian leader to show his ‘strongman’ routine again to his local electorate, much like the water crisis of 1998. Malaysia has refused to return to the status quo preceding their sudden port limits reliagnment.

In the next few days Singapore is going to come to a point where we have to eject the Malaysian boats - as their extended and continued presence in our waters would be seen as a ‘tacit agreement’ and used by Dr. M (who is ‘handling’ this situation himself) to show he has the dominant position in this manufactured dispute.

Futher intrusions would then have to be met with firm force. This will undoubtedly stir nationalistic tensions between the two countries.
Dr. M’s main objective is to drag Singapore to a bilateral negotiation table where he can song and dance to the cameras.

There should be exactly zero negotiations. Let them submit a claim to the International Tribunal of Maritime Law.

Oh and if this sounds strangely familiar, that’s what the Russians just did to Ukraine with the Sea of Azov and what Spain frequently does in Gibraltar

Tigermoth said...

There is no logic why we must let their vessels stay where they are now while we agree to meet the Malaysian for discussion over this matter.
We have been magnanimous to agree to talk to them under this situation. I hope we would not give in more. It is important to know we cannot agree to give another inch.
They demanded to change / scrape the rapid rail, we extended goodwill and sat down and talk to them and agreed on a new time scale.
They want to raise water price and we are ready to engage.
Now this border rubbish. I am sure more monkey issues are coming.
Just remember, we are peace loving and very reasonable people but there is a limit.
We stand ready to defend our rights, our little red dot.

sepecatgr1a said...

The latest response from the “spin doctor“ that Malaysian government agency vessels will continue to remain ( into the second week ) in Singapore territorial waters should not surprise anyone.
Also, the mention of Malaysia’s intention to de-escalate the situation is vague and meaningless without specifics.
Malaysia’s emphasis to their local media that Singapore will negotiate gives the appearance that Singapore has succumbed to Malaysian pressure, which is not true as Singapore has stated from the very outset that discussion & negotiation and not provocation & escalation is the way forward.

For the Malaysian public , the “spin” is that Malaysia on 25 Oct 2018 ostensibly extended its Johor port limits to cater for the increased shipping activities of the port & Singapore has unreasonably protested this action.

In reality it is a naked attempt to grab Singapore territorial waters. Malaysia’s use of
the words “port limits” instead of territorial waters is a poorly disguised play on words in an attempt to deceive. After all, one can only extend one’s port limits only within one’s own territorial waters which is clearly not the case here.

The timeline of claims & protests and especially the map showing the extent of Malaysia’s 1979 and 25 Oct 2018 claims clearly show the absurdity of Malaysia’s latest 25 Oct claim.
I do not think that the above timeline & map has been reproduced in Malaysian media for the benefit of the Malaysian public to decide for themselves what exactly is the truth. All the above are very typical of the type of disinformation perpetrated by the Malaysian government especially when they wish to rouse up emotions against Singapore. In truth it is the hapless Malaysian public who are being bamboozled.

Clearly the dispute in this particular part of the territorial waters between Singapore & Malaysia has been brewing for a long time since from at least 1979. Malaysia has
not only deliberately made more incredulous claims on 25 Oct 2018 but had even gone well beyond their 1979 claims by now claiming Singapore’s territorial waters.
In the almost 40 years from 1979 to date, both Singapore and Malaysia have apparently accepted the status quo by intentionally not discussing & negotiating to resolve the issue.

Hence the only way forward is for Malaysian government agency vessels to leave Singapore territorial waters. That will then pave the way for negotiations to take place on this dispute which in fact has stemmed from at least 1979.

By international law, it is unambiguously clear that Singapore can exercise its right to evict any errant vessels from its territorial waters. However, it is Malaysia’s prerogative to take the path to being a rouge nation & not comply to international law.

sepecatgr1a said...

Readers, please note that almost real time locations of shipping vessels can be found on the website

You can see the current position of the 2,240 ton Malaysian buoy laying vessel Polaris from the above website. It is still currently off Tuas.

From my conversations with Malaysians across the causeway, it appears that their understanding of Malaysia’s rationale for extending Johor’s port limits is the increased shipping traffic in Tanjong Pelepas port.
However, it is very clear from the above website how “busy” Tanjong Pelepas port is compared to the Singapore ports by the looking at the number of shipping vessels in the waters in & around Singapore & Johor waters.

ماهاوانغسا الملايو said...

Tom solve the problem is very simple ... Singapore should change or move the runway .. so, SG will not disturb MY's airspace above Johor ..

Locust said...

Well, they removed most of their ships - left one with one more used as a supply boat. I cannot expect them to remove everything now, as it would not be politically impossible especially since they started this and the issue is publicized to Malaysians and internationally. It is clear that our firm stance and particulary Suns open mobilization has had an impact. If some in the new PH government are not aware about Singapores military capabilities, they are certainly cognizant now.

ماهاوانغسا الملايو said...

@locust, You are dreaming if you still think that Mahathir ia affraid with SG ?

Locust said...

I do not know if Mahathir is dreaming but he is still conscious enough to know and understand to not go to war with SG. He said this a couple of times the day after our open mobilization.They had to de escalate to prevent war. We did not. We stood firm.

I can understand the angst of Malaysians when it comes down to the wire...SGs military superiority is apparent; from the Apache flying near Gelang Patah, the LMVs being deployed, etc. There is no way the MAF can match SGs assets. It is a stark reminder of their own military inadequacies.

Locust said...

This may help explain things..a dictator losing his grip on power likes to distract.

Locust said...

ماهاوانغسا الملايو said...

@locust ...... Refer to the latest situation ... It will be better for for SG to seriously consider to buy a new land at Antartica and/or new planet at our solar system and then you can move your "super rich mighty" state to there ....We hope you can still live happily there ..... a Win win solution for SG and MY

Locust said...

Eh hello..before you even suggest us moving to Antartica, remember to pay us $45 million ringgit in Jan 2019 to compensate SG for deferring the HSR. Small change for you after the goodwill extended by Sg. Of course, we are expecting you to proceed with the HSR;otherwise, compensate us to the tune of hundreds of millions or more.

Shawn C said...

“The British are coming, the British are coming” - Paul Revere

Locust said...

No need for the Brits. We could slowly turn the tap off on our investments in Malaysia similar to what China did to the Phillipines under Aquino. They(Malaysia) likes drama or actions that results in drama as a means to increase popularity. Ours will be for real - hitting their pockets.

Unknown said...

Why are we not equipment to deal with "grey zone conflicts. With the latest intrusion IMMEDIATELY after the working meeting, SG, SAF and Home security are taken as a paper tiger! If we can't do anything at all, what deterrent are we talking about? If they decide to adopt the "little green man" strategy, I doubt we can even fire a single round.

Either impound the intruding ships and arrest all the crew with the coast guard or bring in 2 10k ton fishing ship and ram the intruders or water hose them till they are out of SG

What Happened? said...

The mission of MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces is to enhance Singapore's peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor.

Failed miserably
(1) no deterence, people suka suka come squat in our backyard
(2) nothing swift and decisive, maybe next xmas give us a present and leave

sepecatgr1a said...

Continued Intrusions into Singapore Territorial Waters

With Wednesday’s Johor’s Chief Minister’s visit to the intruding Malaysian government vessel MV Pedoman in Singapore territorial waters, it is clear that Malaysia does not wish to enter into genuine negotiations with Singapore on this issue which was initiated by Malaysia.

This further entry of 5 Malaysian vessels carrying the Johor Chief Minister’s entourage into Singapore waters just immediately after the “positive” meeting between the foreign ministers of both countries is an escalation of the provocation Malaysia started.

Malaysia’s actions necessitate that steps be taken immediately to initiate third party arbitration. But there is a very high possibility that Malaysia does not want to take this path as it is crystal clear that they will fail in asserting their absurd 25 Oct 2018 territorial claim when brought in front of an international arbitration panel.
Malaysia’s loss of Pedra Branca to Singapore when the issue was settled by arbitration by international law resounds very loudly in the ears of Malaysia.

If Malaysia refuses to settle this by arbitration Singapore then by international law has no choice but to forcibly evict or arrest the offending vessels & crews

Seletar Airport and ILS

This is very good example of Malaysia’s intention to rattle Singapore and attempt to crimp Singapore civil aviation operations. Having been officially informed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore such a long time ago of the upgraded operations at Seletar Airport, Malaysia chose to object only immediately after the new Seletar Airport was completed. The timing has clearly been calculated to disrupt Seletar Airport’s operations.

The excuse was their objection to the proposed implementation of the very well established ILS system which Malaysia claimed allowed aircraft to fly 54 m above ground level at a distance of 3km which is the distance from the start of Seletar Airport’s runway to Pasir Gudang outside limit.

Any secondary school kid using simple trigonometry can calculate that a typical ILS glide slope of 3 degrees gives a height of 157 m at 3km distance ( a hint to those who failed their maths in secondary school - use tangent 3 degrees X 3,000 m ). Note that a 1 degree glide slope gives 52 m height.

Having realized that the ILS excuse does not hold water, Malaysia subsequently declared the air space above Pasir Gudang a restricted air space. Malaysia with 132,000 sq km land area in West Malaysia alone chose to restrict the several sq km of air space directly in the flight path of aircraft landing in Seletar Airport.

Out of good faith and goodwill, Singapore has unfortunately bent over backwards to accommodate Malaysia’s request to postpone the High Speed Rail project in light of Malaysia’s major current internal problems. Shortly after agreeing to their request, Malaysia quickly intimidated Singapore by creating major issues which did not exist before 25 Oct 2018.

Singapore & Malaysia will and must quickly resolve the above two issues.

But more importantly for Singapore the lesson learned is that we must now take all necessary steps to ensure that these issues are not allowed to rear its ugly head again ( as they will most likely do with future Malaysian governments when they are faced with major domestic problems ) by the unilateral decisions of Malaysia.

I believe Singapore needs to make strategic decisions on the above issues and other issues that may be possibly raised by Malaysia in future. Apparently that “old baggage” is still being carried by Malaysia and they do not wish to work together with Singapore for mutual benefit. We can no longer assume that Malaysia will reciprocate any goodwill Singapore has extended. It will be in Singapore’s best interest to take this as a key consideration when dealing with Malaysia in future.

ماهاوانغسا الملايو said...

So...when Will SG declare a war to MY? Johor and Trengganu Will be yours if SG can win the war...✌️��⚙️����������

Locust said...

The Singapore government is not foolish. In almost all cases Sg plays the long game knowing fully well its military superiority over Malaysia gives it options to maneuvre.

Apart from a civilian bouy ship and a supply/police boat, Malaysia was forced to de escalate and withdraw the other ships. It is clear that it lacks both assets and money to continue the deployment on a large scale. Not to mention such incidents show the age and quality of their equipment.

* The MB Osman 5 ship entourage was a dumb stunt with serious ramifications for Johor if Sg takes further action apart from the cancellation of the Iskandar talks. Where is Johor going to get its investments when China is reducing theirs..talks on 3rd bridge, water etc. will stall.Ty Osman.

Singapore can continue this game indefinitely. The Tuas reclaimation project continues and the TUas Megaport will spell the end of Tanjung Pelepas (well it has already lost to Sg).

Seletar operates as per normal minus Firefly. Firefly was the one which requested for ILS. Now Firefly, owned by MAS is making nearly 15 to 20 RM million losses per month. Lets see how much more losses they can absorb. The space prepared for Firefly can be given to a other private operators. As far as I know, restricting aircraft movement for an already established airport will be outrageous and a black mark against Malaysias reputation, let alone any aspiration to expand its aviation industry. Malaysia also should not forget access to Pasir Gudang for the large commercial ships are through Sg waters for which Sg can also restrict.

draco said...

There is clearly no grey area there...only grey mind and thought of Singapore government and people who continue to conduct new claim and try to draw new water borders and encroach Malaysian Territorial Waters and International Waters. stop twist fact and begging for sympathy...