2 Malaysian ships leave Singapore waters as Khaw Boon Wan urges complete withdrawal

SINGAPORE - Malaysia has taken steps to de-escalate tensions arising from its ongoing maritime dispute with Singapore, and has withdrawn a couple of its vessels from the Republic's territorial waters.

But one ship still remains in Singapore's waters as of Wednesday (Dec 12), and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said he strongly urged Malaysia to withdraw completely, adding that the vessel's presence creates "unnecessary risks" and could lead to "accidental escalation on the ground".

This risk is also "not conducive to the upcoming bilateral discussions that we are going to hold next month", Mr Khaw told reporters on Wednesday. As of last Friday afternoon, there were three Malaysian ships in Singapore's waters.

Asked whether the talks - which both countries have agreed to hold in the second week of January - are conditional on Malaysian vessels pulling out completely from the disputed waters, Mr Khaw said: "We are committed to talks and we will talk, that has always been our attitude."

"Peaceful resolution is always the best way forward," he added. But having Malaysian ships remain "doesn't add to your legal case".

He said that Malaysia's commitment to take all effective measures to de-escalate any tensions on the ground is a "good move in the right direction".

The territorial dispute that Mr Khaw addressed was brought to light on Dec 4.

It was sparked off after Malaysia unilaterally extended its Johor Baru port boundaries through a gazette on Oct 25, encroaching into the Republic's waters.

The new boundary line extends beyond what Malaysia had previously claimed as its own waters in a 1979 map, which Singapore has not accepted.

Despite diplomatic protest from Singapore, there were 14 incursions by Malaysian government vessels into the Republic's waters, between Nov 24 and Dec 5.

Mr Khaw said that Singapore's security agencies continue to patrol the waters and keep a close watch on the situation.

"We value our bilateral relations with Malaysia. That's why we are trying our best to find a peaceful solution to the current dispute," Mr Khaw added.

"We explained to them that stationing their ships in our waters does not make an iota of difference to their legal claims... They acknowledge this legal point," Mr Khaw said.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.