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Malaysia in transition

Singapore-Malaysia tensions still simmer ahead of bilateral talks

Kuala Lumpur sets restricted airspace near border to exclude civil flights

Seletar Airport, located in the northern part of Singapore, is used for chartered flights. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

SINGAPORE -- The foreign ministers of Singapore and Malaysia will meet next Tuesday to discuss the airspace dispute that has been lingering between them for the past weeks. But the two countries failed to ease tensions before the meeting as Malaysia set a "restricted area" near the border that could affect flights to Singapore.

The spat surfaced in early December as Malaysia opposed to Singapore's plan to introduce the Instrument Landing System -- a precision runway approach system -- to Seletar Airport, the city-state's second airport near the border, claiming that the new flight path would affect development of the Malaysian side. Malaysia also said that it wanted to regain control of the airspace in southern Malaysia, where Singapore has provided air traffic control services since 1974.

The tensions rose again through the new year as the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia in late December issued a Notice to Airmen -- a written notification issued to pilots -- saying that Malaysia would set a permanent "restricted area" near the Singapore border for military activities. "Non-military flights are not permitted except prior approval is obtained," the notice read. 

This is apparently another countermeasure against Seletar's new approach system. According to the latitude and longitude information provided in the notice, the restricted area overlaps a part of Seletar's new approach path that was indicated by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in December. The restricted area, which took effect Wednesday, has been set above a pentagon-shaped district of some 60 sq. kilometers and is only 6 km away from the airport's runway at the closest point.

Singapore responded to this by issuing another Notice to Airmen to the international aviation community: "CAAS was not consulted on the restricted area as required under the [International Civil Aviation Organization] provisions, and Singapore reserves our position on [Malaysia's notice]." Singapore also noted that flight delays are expected due to the restricted area.

Separately, Singapore's Transport Ministry expressed a concern in a statement issued Tuesday. "The restricted area being within a controlled and congested airspace will impact the existing and normal operations of aircraft transiting through the airspace."

The fresh spat came as the two countries, which earlier said they would meet in the second week of January, have confirmed that their foreign ministers will meet on Jan. 8 in Singapore to discuss the airspace issue as well as the maritime dispute in which Singapore claimed Malaysian vessels' had made "intrusions" into its territorial waters.

Regarding items on the agenda for the bilateral talks, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters that "one that must be given immediate attention" is the airspace issue, as quoted by state media Bernama. "I am confident the issue will be discussed well to find a win-win solution for both countries."

According to Singapore's Foreign Ministry, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Dec. 31 visited Malaysia to meet Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad "to convey a message" on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Since Mahathir returned to the premiership in May 2018, the two countries, which sometimes faced spats in the past, again faced diplomatic issues, including Malaysia's water supply to Singapore and deferment of the high-speed rail project that connects the two nations.

"The new disputes on maritime boundaries, following provocative intrusions into our territorial waters, and on airspace, particularly the Instrument Landing System rules for Seletar Airport, are more difficult to resolve," Lee said in his new year message to his citizens.

"We will deal with all these matters calmly and constructively," Lee added. He said the two countries must manage specific problems while preserving the overall relationship "through equality and mutual respect, upholding international commitments and the rule of law."

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