Tensions Flare Between Malaysia and Singapore with the Mahathir Government

Seletar airport is at the centre of the new dispute between Malaysia and Singapore

The new Malaysian government which put an end to the reign of the Barisan Nasional -the historical coalition which has been running Malaysia from the independence to May elections this year- has also revived old woes with its most southern neighbour, Singapore.

Mahathir Mohamad has never been shy of showing his opposition to Singapore during his previous tenure as Prime Minister in the eighties and nineties. Issues surfed regularly during his first mandate over water and electricity supply, borders issues among others. Back to power, the 93-year old Dr. M. is reigniting again old foes with Singapore.

On Tuesday tensions between both countries took a turn for the worse as the two neighbours accused each other of violating each other’s air and sea boundaries when Malaysia Transport Minister Anthony Loke explained to the Malaysian parliament that the government was angered by Singapore’s unilateral decision to broadcast a new radar system at Seletar airport, which will force aircraft to fly at low altitude over the State of Johor Bahru, creating noise for residents and jeopardising the activities of a nearby seaport on Malaysian side. The Minister indicated to lodge an official complaint over a “violation of the principle of the sovereign rights of the country”.

Singapore rejected the complaint by telling that the new radar system would not affect the current state of noise and flight path over Southern Malaysia, stressing that aircraft guidance was in line with international safety practices in air transport. In a separate statement, the city state said it had decided to lodge a “strong protest” with Mahathir’s government over its decision to extend Johor port boundaries into Singaporean territorial waters as it also “impinge on Singapore’s sovereignty”, according to Singapore Ministry of Transport. The Ministry complaint also about Malaysian vessels intruding into Singapore waters.

Malaysia is putting further pressure on Singapore with Anthony Loke announcing at the same time that Malaysia is seeking to retake control of sections of Singaporean-controlled airspace – or flight information region – that were in Malaysian territory. Singapore air traffic controllers are watching partially air space in Malaysia and Indonesia which are in the vicinity of the city state to help coordinate better all air movements around Southeast Asia second busiest hub.

Malaysia indicated to take over gradually its air space control, in a time frame of four years, starting from the last quarter of 2019. The minister added that Malaysia would not take a “confrontational stance” but neither would it compromise on “defending our sovereignty and airspace”. Such a decision would of course put pressure on Singapore authorities to assure smooth flying conditions from and to Changi airport.

The Singaporean transport ministry replied by highlighting that although “Singapore respects Malaysia’s sovereignty but at the same time, international law is clear that cross-border airspace management is not incompatible with sovereignty,” it declared.

The most blatant consequence has been the suspension by Malaysian regional carrier Firefly of all its routes into Singapore, depriving cities such as Ipoh or Kuantan of their only connection to the City State. Firefly has been unable to obtain approval from Malaysia’s regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM), to operate in Seletar Airport as the change of airport for the airline should have been agreed with Malaysian authorities. Firefly stopped flying to Singapore since December 1st.

These new issues come after Malaysia decided in July to postpone to 2020 an agreed development of a high speed train link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Recent information circulated as well over the revival of a new causeway bridge on the Malaysian side, which links Johor Bahru to Singapore.

According to political observers, Mahathir strong stance with his southern neighbour is a tactic of the veteran politician to distract Malaysians from domestic pressure for his government. The Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Mahathir is now facing numerous issues from race tensions to its declaration that not all election promises may be fulfilled.