During his 2023 Committee of Supply (COS) speech on foreign affairs, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan gave Parliament an update on relations with three of Singapore’s neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and emphasised the many agreements and areas of cooperation that have been worked on.
Vivian also gave an update on the development works ongoing at Pedra Branca, explaining why Singapore temporarily suspended the works in May 2022 in “the spirit of mutual cooperation and good faith”.
This is despite the fact that the works are necessary and were undertaken to enhance maritime safety and security, to improve search and rescue capabilities in the area and to help protect Pedra Branca against rising sea-levels, Vivian said.
Responding to cuts from Members of Parliament (MPs) Don Wee and Sylvia Lim, Vivian said that Singapore’s close relations with Malaysia are underpinned by frequent high-level exchanges and strong people-to-people ties.
“Many Singapore ministers have known our Malaysian counterparts for decades, and have kept in regular contact,” he said.
Calling Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim an “old friend of Singapore”, Vivian referred to Anwar’s official visit in end-January 2023, noting that his delegation included high-ranking individuals such as the premier of Sarawak, the menteri besar (chief minister) of Johor, and four cabinet ministers.
Vivian said he looked forward to welcoming Anwar back to Singapore later this year for the 10th Leaders’ Retreat, and name-checked “significant ongoing cooperation projects” between the two countries, such as the Rapid Transit System link between Singapore and Johor Bahru.
Once completed and running in end-2026 (expected), it will help the tens of thousands who cross the border every day and make their journey more convenient. Vivian said the project was “making good progress”.
Anwar’s visit also resulted in the signing of three government-to-government memoranda of understanding, in areas like the Digital and Green Economy, Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection.
Vivian addressed an issue of friction between the two countries, namely Malaysia raising objections to development works ongoing at Pedra Branca.
These works are necessary and were undertaken to enhance maritime safety and security and to improve search and rescue capabilities in the area. They also help to protect Pedra Branca against rising sea-levels.
Pedra Branca: Works done in accordance with international law and Singaporean sovereignty
These development works are fully in accordance with both international law and Singaporean sovereignty over the island and its waters, Vivian emphasised.
However, in “the spirit of mutual cooperation and good faith”, Singapore temporarily suspended the works in May 2022 (while Malaysia was under a different administration and prime minister), to facilitate discussions on Malaysian concerns and address their queries comprehensively.
In Dec. 2022, after Malaysia’s General Election, Singapore put forth proposals to resolve the issue and continue the works. Subsequently, Singapore agreed to Malaysia’s request for more time to consider our clarifications and proposals. The development works remain paused due to the monsoon season.
“We will manage our differences constructively and pragmatically and not allow any single issue to overshadow the entire relationship,” Vivian said.
In response to MP Vikram Nair’s cut, Vivian highlighted that both Singapore and Indonesia have recently ratified three agreements under the Expanded Framework:
- Flight Information Region (FIR)
- Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA)
- Extradition Treaty (ET)
On the FIR in particular, Singapore and Indonesia need to jointly seek approval from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Once it is ready for implementation, both sides will arrange for all three agreements to enter into force at the same time on a mutually-agreed date.
Vivian elaborated on the “tangible benefits” for both countries. The FIR will see Indonesia delegating to Singapore the provision of air navigation services in portions of the airspace within the realigned Jakarta FIR, closest to Singapore.
“This will ensure that the present and future air traffic to Changi Airport and nearby Indonesian airports continue to be managed safely and efficiently,” Vivian said.
Meanwhile, the DCA will enhance interaction and cooperation between the two militaries, providing clarity for the Singapore Armed Forces’ training in Indonesian archipelagic and territorial waters and airspace.
This will be done on a basis that fully respects Indonesian sovereignty over its territory while also preserving Singapore’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Extradition Treaty will strengthen cooperation between the law enforcement agencies of the two countries to fight crime and complement the existing cooperation with Indonesia.
“Taken together, the resolution of these three longstanding issues paves the way for us to advance our bilateral cooperation significantly in the years ahead,” Vivian said.
He also looked forward to welcoming Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to Singapore for the next Singapore-Indonesia Leaders’ Retreat.
Vivian also mentioned Brunei, and said that Singapore’s unique and longstanding relationship with the kingdom remains strong and mutually beneficial.
In 2022, Sultan Bolkiah made his fifth state visit to Singapore, and Crown Prince Billah also visited for the 8th Singapore-Brunei Young Leaders’ Programme.
On the other side, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong also recently visited Brunei, calling on the Sultan, the Crown Prince, and holding “productive meetings” with many Brunei ministers.
Vivian added that Singapore looks forward to working with Brunei in expanding cooperation in emerging areas such as the green economy, agri-tech and energy.
Top image from Vivian Balakrishnan’s Facebook page.