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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

Singapore-Malaysian border security tensions and its historical origins

By Alicia (Managing Editor)

Singaporean and Malaysian ships passing through the sea of Tuas View Extension on 6 December 2018. Source: Today Online

Singapore and Malaysia have experienced their fair share of border disputes due to their turbulent relationship. From the management of airspace in Southern Johor, a territorial dispute at the Tuas waters after Johor Bahru extended its port, to reclamation works done by Singapore that Malaysia claims infringes on their territory, the border disputes that Malaysia and Singapore have are complex, encompassing many aspects of border security. [1] Despite that, they have a symbiotic relationship with each other due to the water bodies and air spaces they share as neighbouring countries. Additionally, their proximity means that both countries are socially and economically interdependent on each other; they rely on each other for essentials like trade and water security. [2] The two nations are forced to interact and contest with each other on such matters to ensure its own survival, even if it comes at the expense of diplomatic relations over territorial disputes and other bilateral conflicts.

There is no escaping the fact that Singapore-Malaysia borders hold the key to some of the most important trading routes in the world as a strategic chokepoint for economic and maritime trade. However, tensions between the two nations remain high, especially when it comes to security and sovereignty issues. With the rise of Mahathir’s coalition government to power recently, Malaysia has diverted its attention to taking a more aggressive stance on international issues in an attempt to distract the population from internal strife and the party’s inability to fulfill its promises to them. [3] This then prompts an investigation into Singapore-Malaysia border security tensions: how they originated, how they’ve manifested in different periods of Singapore’s and Malaysia’s history, and what implications these have on the security of Singapore.

The history of Singapore and Malaysia

When Singapore underwent merger with Malaya in 1963 to form the state of Malaysia, the relationship between them quickly turned sour mainly due to ideological disagreements between the two ruling parties. Singapore refused to give Malays in Singapore the same privileges that other Malays on the peninsula enjoyed, instead advocating for a society without racial prejudice. [4] The two governments ruling Singapore and Malaya respectively also could not agree on political involvement, as Singapore had a vibrant political scene since pre-merger that posed a threat to Malaya’s political hegemony. [5] This, along with other political disagreements between Singapore and Malaysian political parties, built tensions between the two that eventually led to their separation. Even until today, Malaysia’s bumiputra policy clashes directly with Singapore’s belief in racial equality, forming the basis of racial politics in both countries.

Malaysia and Singapore also have distinct cultures and histories which shape their foreign policies differently. As a small Chinese-majority nation amongst Muslim “neighbours”, Singapore has to navigate the balance between appeasing Malaysia and Indonesia while also asserting its territorial sovereignty in the region. In a region where its neighbours are hostile to its very existence, Singapore needs to ensure it does not overly provoke its neighbours. The situation between Malaysia and Singapore, in particular, is tricky due to their shared history and geographical proximity, with Singapore and Malaysia sharing borders in one of the busiest trading ports in the world, aggravating the conflict in terms of the region’s economic and strategic importance to both nations.

Both sides have projected many of their lingering post-independence sentiments into their interactions with each other regarding the security of their respective borders, leading to this becoming a recurring theme in the various disputes between the two nations.

Instances of border disputes between Malaysia and Singapore

The contestation over the 1979 sea border near Tuas is a key border dispute between Malaysia and Singapore. Malaysia first drew up their sea border near Tuas in 1979, which was not well-received by Singapore. [6] Both countries drew up an agreement in 1995 to mitigate this issue by revising the sea borders. However, Malaysia attempted to reverse course in 1999 by reverting to the sea border they had initially drawn up in 1979. [7] This amendment caused a lot of unhappiness in Singapore, where the move was perceived as an encroachment of their sea territory by Malaysia.

Singapore-Malaysian Tuas sea border disputes in recent history. Source: The Interpreter

More famously, the Pedra Branca incident elucidated the Singapore-Malaysian bilateral conflict when it came to their maritime borders, which was amplified on the international stage with the involvement of international entities. The Pedra Branca conflict involved Singapore and Malaysia having overlapping territorial claims over a series of small island territories in the far east of Singapore’s waters – Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge. [8] A conflict that has been going on since 1979 marked by overlapping delineations of territory on Singapore and Malaysia, the Pedra Branca Incident was raised to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2003, which gave a ruling on the incident in 2008. [9] The ICJ gave the island Pedra Branca to Singapore, which lies along one of the busiest shipping straits in the world. [10] Despite Malaysia’s history of owning Pedra Branca under the Johor Sultanate in the early 1800s, the island was in Singapore’s hands until 1980, which the ICJ assessed as “concrete manifestations of [a] display of sovereignty by the other State”. [11] Tensions between the two nations amplified with this incident, which saw the international community side with Singapore on the Pedra Branca issue. While the international community voted 12-4 in favour of Singapore for Pedra Branca, they voted 15-1 that Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia and 15-1 that South Ledge belonged to whichever state’s territorial waters it belonged to. Malaysia filed an appeal to the ICJ on the basis of historical claims over the island but ultimately dropped their case in 2018. [12] The historical and economic implications of holding onto the territorial sovereignty of Pedra Branca complicated the issue on both sides, along with pre-existing geopolitical tensions between them on border disputes.

Air border disputes have also been a part of Malaysia-Singapore border disputes. Malaysia and Singapore have accused each other’s fighter jets of encroaching on each other’s territories in the past. More recently, in January 2019, Malaysia protested Singapore’s building of an Instrument Landing System (ILS) in Seletar Airport, which they believed would “stunt development around the Pasir Gudung industrial district” in Malaysia. [13]

Despite some significant improvements in their ties over the past few years, old, unresolved problems between the two countries, including border issues, still tend to arise from time to time in part due to their domestic politics. [14] Changes in domestic politics, such as the emergence of new leadership in the respective countries, have the potential to influence the trajectory of Singapore-Malaysian border issues. With the change in the Malaysian Prime Minister from Najib Razak to Mahathir Mohamad in 2018, tensions surrounding the border disputes rose during this period as the change in Malaysia’s head of state also came along with a resurfacing of “old bilateral issues”. [15] While Najib was more laissez-faire in his leadership style and approach to Singapore, the aggressive personality of Mahathir, who holds onto more nationalistic sentiments and has been actively involved in Malaysian politics since Singapore’s independence, have aggravated relations between the two nations on the border disputes with his hardline stance on Malaysia-Singapore issues. Mahathir, in his approach towards Singapore-Malaysian border disputes, brings heightened sentiments characteristic of Singapore-Malaysian relations in the past, compared to the softer approach taken by leaders on both sides today. For the leadership and people of both countries, the border disputes between them have historical legacies that still impact present-day politics.

Implications on Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia

How should we look at Singapore-Malaysia relations with due consideration of these border disputes? Undoubtedly, the two states have had a tumultuous relationship. The border disputes have merely been one part of a larger series of events that have taken place between the two nations. Developments in both nations have the potential to affect each other due to the inextricable relationship the nations share, in terms of geography, history, politics and culture. An example of these tensions include the development of the Seletar airspace which provoked a hostile reaction from Malaysia. Similarly, the development of Malaysia’s Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP), which opened in 2000, has also incited competition against Singapore along the lines of maritime trade, reopening fissures between the two. [16]

Spats between Singapore and Malaysia also have trickle-down effects on local politics within the two nations, along which national issues of significant importance lie on the state of bilateral relations between the two nations. Disputes between the two nations over issues like the import of water to Singapore using Malaysian water pipes, the manning of a railway station’s custom post by Malaysia authorities in the heart of Singapore, and restrictions on the RSAF’s use of Malaysian airspace have created “the impression that the two countries are in a state of perpetual conflict that could spill over into military hostilities”. [17] Yet, it is equally important to recognize the symbiotic relationship that Malaysia and Singapore have – both nations are forced to interact with each other as close neighbours for mutual benefit, whether they like it or not. This has culminated in the balancing act of attempting to defend their own national agendas while retaining some semblance of mutual harmony, with each side knowing the strategic stronghold their neighbour wields over them.

Singapore and Malaysia will undoubtedly have to continue to carefully navigate their turbulent relationship. Their geographical proximity and shared history leave them with no other alternative but to interact with each other constantly in the region and on the international stage. What will come next in emerging Malaysia-Singapore security tensions remains a pressing question, but it is nonetheless important to revisit trends from the past to analyse and craft approaches to take in the future.

The key takeaways from the Singapore-Malaysia border disputes – like the two nations having to uphold territorial sovereignty and diplomacy with states with different interests – are pivotal in how Singapore deals with international affairs. In light of Singapore’s strong condemnation of territorial encroachments in response to bigger international developments like the Russia-Ukraine war, and recent surprise attacks by Hamas on Israel, it is worth examining how Singapore’s stance on international relations originated within its region through her relations with her neighbours. Bibliography






Alicia is a Year 3 History and Political Science major who serves as the Managing Editor at The Convergence. She loves to explore sociopolitical issues (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status) through writing, though she is also interested in international affairs and historical events. She's a campus accommodation hopper (she's also known as Ms. Worldwide), having stayed in RH in Y1, UTR in Y2, and TH in Y3. She can be spotted playing badminton and squash with her TH recreational team or camping in her room while enjoying a good book or video essay.


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