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Malaysia in transition

Singapore and Malaysia make major breakthrough in maritime dispute

Relations still tense as Kuala Lumpur continues to demand water price renegotiation

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, left, and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah shake hands during the press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on March 14.   © AP

SINGAPORE -- Malaysia and Singapore have agreed to restore the previous status in their disputed maritime border area, in a major breakthrough to de-escalate tensions that have been festering between the two countries for months.

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah met on Thursday in Malaysia to discuss the issues. 

According to a joint statement released after the meeting, the two countries have agreed to mutually suspend expansions of their port limits -- which created the overlapping area that is in question -- as well as cease all commercial activities and not anchor government vessels in the area. 

They have also agreed to set up a committee for maritime boundary delimitation. "In the event that the committee is unable to reach an amicable solution on delimitation," the statement says, "Malaysia and Singapore may mutually agree to resort to an appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure on terms to be mutually agreed by the parties."

Singapore and Malaysia are separated by a strait a few kilometers wide.

The spat between two Southeast Asian nations surfaced last December, after Malaysia extended its port limits to near Singapore and sent government vessels in the extended area. Singapore called that "intrusion" by Malaysia to Singapore's territorial waters.

The bilateral disputes had spread to airspace. In December Malaysia claimed that the new precision landing system that was to be introduced at Seletar Airport in northern Singapore would affect construction activities in Johor.

At the previous foreign ministers meeting in January, they agreed to set up a joint working group to seek resolution for the maritime issue. Thursday's agreement was therefore based on the working group's suggestions, two countries said. As for the airspace dispute, the two countries are still in negotiations. 

Though the maritime negotiations have made progress, tensions still simmer between the two countries. 

Singapore and Malaysia have since last year been in a rancorous dispute over a water supply agreement between the neighbors. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government wants to charge more for the water his country supplies to the city-state, which Singapore says would be a breach of contract. 

Earlier this week, the water supply issue was highlighted again. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin on Tuesday said in parliament that if Singapore does not want to renegotiate the water price, "Malaysia should bring this to international arbitration."

In response, a spokesperson for Singapore's foreign ministry said Wednesday, "Singapore has been clear and consistent that our position is that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under [the agreement made in 1962]."

The spokesperson added: "Singapore has always been prepared to settle disputes by recourse to appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedures, on terms mutually agreed to by the parties."

The foreign ministers discussed this issue during Thursday's meeting, but apparently there was no major progress. Singapore's Balakrishnan said at a press conference that the two countries agreed to continue the discussions "to better understand each other's position." 

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