Air and sea disputes have stoked new tensions between Malaysia and Singapore, driving ties between the neighbors to their lowest point since Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad notched a shock election victory in May this year.

Earlier this month, Singapore lodged a “strong protest” over Malaysia’s plans to extend the limits of a port in its southernmost state, Johor, claiming its territorial waters would be encroached upon.

The wealthy city-state also accused Malaysian vessels of repeated intrusions, claims that Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook has contested.

Loke has maintained that the altered port’s limits are in Malaysia’s territorial sea and do not encroach on any part of Singapore. The maritime boundary tiff comes as the two countries wrangle over another dispute involving control of a flight path that passes over Malaysian airspace to a small secondary airport in Singapore.

Malaysia informed its southern neighbor that it intends to take back control of the airspace, which Singapore has managed since 1974.

Malaysia made the announcement after the city-state issued a new instrument landing system at its Seletar Airport without Malaysia’s consent, which Loke said would lead to height limits on building developments and affect shipping operations in Johor.

Both sides have since traded recriminations, refusing to yield despite agreeing to take steps to de-escalate the situation and handle the disputes through dialogue. However, Mahathir’s administration recently took a hard line, accusing Singapore of selectively releasing past correspondence on airspace issues to manipulate public opinion in its favor.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signs a guestbook next to Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad prior to their private meeting in Putrajaya, Malaysia, May 19, 2018. Department of Information via Reuters/Hafiz Itam
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signs a guestbook next to Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Putrajaya, Malaysia, May 19, 2018. Photo: Department of Information via Reuters/Hafiz Itam

He also said Malaysian vessels would remain in the disputed waters while talks with Singapore are ongoing.

Officials from the two sides are due to meet during the second week of January to discuss the maritime dispute, while Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that Malaysia’s vessel deployments in the area would not “strengthen its legal claim.”

Malaysia proposed on December 7 that both countries cease and desist from sending assets into the disputed area pending discussions. Singapore has refused, casting the move as an attempt to “create facts on the ground” that would “add nothing” to Malaysia’s legal case.

The wealthy city-state, in turn, suggested that both sides revert to the pre-October 25 status quo, referring to the date when Malaysia unilaterally extended its port limits in Johor, while also making clear Singapore would defend its sovereignty and territory. Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry (FAM) has said it will accede to the counter-proposal.

Singapore’s MFA followed by issuing a statement on December 10 saying Malaysia would “be responsible for any untoward situations on the ground that arise from continued deployment of its vessels into this area.”

Singapore-Malaysia-ICJ-Map-
Map: The Hague

The disputes over airspace and territorial waters are the latest in a series of differences between Mahathir’s new government and Singapore.

Soon after the wily nonagenarian began his second stint as Malaysia’s premier, his government announced plans to scrap a 350-kilometer high-speed rail system connecting Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on cost-cutting grounds. The project was inked in December 2016 by then Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government.

Ties between the two neighbors blossomed under Najib’s watch, giving way to a raft of bilateral ventures and cross-border infrastructure projects. Mahathir’s unexpected return to the premiership stirred certain anxieties in Singapore due to his widely perceived as hawkish stance toward the city-state when he governed Malaysia from 1981 to 2003.

While both sides eventually came to an agreement in September to defer the high-speed rail project to 2020, with Malaysia set to pay abortive costs to Singapore by next January, various sticking points from the previous Mahathir era suggests the thorny cross-straits ties of past decades have made a comeback.

The Malaysian leader has also revived an old dispute over water prices sold to Singapore, calling for the city-state to pay at least ten times more for raw water than what the legally binding 1962 Water Agreement between the two countries stipulates. Singapore’s leaders have refused to entertain a price hike, despite agreeing to exchange views on the matter.

Water pipelines that supply the 1962 agreement between Malaysia and Singapore. Photo: Facebook
Water pipelines that supply the 1962 agreement between Malaysia and Singapore. Photo: Facebook

Mahathir has also backed calls to revive the so-called “crooked bridge” project first mooted in 2000 to replace the existing causeway that links the two nations. Singapore’s leaders refused to assent to the proposal, which the then Mahathir government claimed would ease traffic congestion and boost port activity by allowing ships to sail across the Johor Strait.

Just before ending his first 22-year tenure as premier in 2003, Mahathir said Malaysia would build the bridge, which would curve in an elevated S-shape to allow vessels to pass under it, even if Singapore refused to demolish its half of the causeway. Abdullah Badawi, Mahathir’s successor, eventually abandoned the scheme.

Along with other testy bilateral differences, the latest air and sea disputes have drawn attention from citizens on both sides, with analysts and prominent figures in Singapore speculating that Malaysia instigated the disputes to distract from internal uncertainties as right-wing opposition parties move to rally Malay Muslims against the government.

“Domestic political mileage has a shelf-life and so the more bilateral relations become hostage to domestic politics, the more turbulent bilateral relations will be,” Mustafa Izzuddin, an expert in Singapore-Malaysia ties at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said in regard to the rising disputes between the two countries.

“Talks are likely to be protracted as there is more disagreement than concurrence in the current tug of war between Malaysia and Singapore,” he told Asia Times. “At the same time, however, concerted efforts at de-escalation will be made to keep a lid on the current volatile situation. There is more to lose than gain from the current standoff.

“Third-party mediation or an international tribunal may well come into play if after the talks do not bear fruit,” Mustafa believes. Both countries have mutually agreed to refer disputes to third-party settlement procedures in the past, including a territorial dispute over Pedra Branca, an outlying island to the east of mainland Singapore.

FILE PHOTO: A bird's-eye view of ships along the coast in Singapore July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo
A bird’s-eye view of ships along the coast in Singapore July 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

In 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded the island to Singapore and the nearby Middle Rocks to Malaysia, a decision that resolved a territorial dispute which began in 1979. Malaysia withdrew applications to revise and interpret the ICJ’s 2008 judgment earlier this year without its case ever being argued.

“Despite the expected twists and turns characteristic of bilateral relations, especially among close neighbors, Malaysia-Singapore relations are inextricably intertwined,” says Mustafa, who described Singapore as sending signals both at home and abroad that “as a small state, it is no pushover and can defend its interests vigorously albeit calmly.”

Against a backdrop of ratcheting tensions and charges of sovereignty violations, acrimony between the two neighbors has even extended into the realm of desserts. Malaysian netizens were up in arms when CNN named Singapore’s version of chendol – a shaved ice dessert enjoyed on both sides of the causeway – on its latest list of the world’s best desserts.

Debate over the origin of celebrated local food stirs passions among people in both nations, which share a culinary heritage and a linked past. Singapore was briefly part of Malaysia before separating to become an independent state in 1965 owing to political differences. Like the disputed maritime boundaries, each side lays strong claim to the iconic sweet dessert.