Overland, many are aware of the unilateral decision by Malaysia to delay the High-Speed Rail project in 2018. It was a topsy-turvy turn of events which saw newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that he would abruptly cancel the project, only to finally negotiate a 2 year postponement of the project while Malaysia rebuilds its economy. The project would’ve fast-tracked train travel from Singapore to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur from 11 hours to 90 minutes.
However, tensions have arisen once again over the turn of the new year, as two more disputes surrounding the boundaries of air and sea have sparked firm government action from both parties.
In the air, Singapore published defined aircraft protocols at Seletar Airport known as the Instrument Landing System (ILS) on Dec 1. On 28 and 29 Nov 2018, the Malaysian government disputed the change while procedures were still being confirmed, as it would indirectly impose building restrictions in the nearby city of Pasir Gudang. The ILS defines the flight paths above Pasir Gudang and subjects the airspace to height control limits in compliance with international aviation laws. Both countries have cited complications involving various stakeholders as the reasoning behind their inability to back down from the issue. However, it should be noted that under a 1973 agreement Singapore has control over the contested airspace.
On the sea, Malaysia’s Federal Government Gazette announced unilateral changes to its port limits on 25 Oct 2018, expanding into previously established international waters and pushing against Singapore’s own port limits.
Why is this significant?
The recent spate of diplomatic clouts between the two governments seems reflective of a trend heralded by the return of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. His predecessor, Najib Razak, characterised the former as the focal point of “confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric” with Singapore during his previous tenure as premier. A point which was brought up by Singaporean oxford student Darrion Mohan when confronting the Malaysian Prime Minister over the soured relations between both countries. Whether the latest upset of relations could be seen as a resurgence of such politics or the assertions of a reformed government trying to pick up the pieces.