Malaysia and Singapore May be Near Deal on Port Limits

The collision between the Piraeus and the Polaris (Singapore Police Force)

Published Feb 14, 2019 3:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

After a collision last weekend in waters claimed by both sides, Malaysia and Singapore are in advanced talks to resolve a dispute over maritime demarcations in Johor Strait. 

“The discussions are very positive and we are about to resolve the issues on the port lines,” said foreign minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, speaking at a press conference Thursday. “Our officers are discussing the matter almost on a day to day basis. That’s the most important thing."

The dispute centers on the border line between the port of Tuas, Singapore and the port of Johor Bahru, Malaysia. The two sides have had an on-and-off disagreement over the demarcation between these areas since 1979, and last October, the Malaysian government expanded its claim further east to include waters just off Tuas' docks In return, Singapore extended Tuas' formal port limits to cover the same area, out to the edge of the Singaporean maritime boundary claim. 

Singapore's minister for transport, Khaw Boon Wan, criticized the Malaysian claim and said that Singapore would not give ground. "Out of the blue, Malaysia is claiming these territorial waters that belong to Singapore. Without any prior consultations, Malaysia is seeking to alter unilaterally the long-standing status quo in the area. This is a blatant provocation and a serious violation of our sovereignty and international law," he said. 

The standoff escalated in December and January, with both sides dispatching patrol boats, government-owned vessels and warships into the disputed area. Last weekend, one of these patrols ended in a collision with a civilian vessel. 

At 1430 hours on February 9, the Greek bulker Piraeus (AIS reporting name Pireas) collided with the Malaysian government buoy tender Polaris within the bounds of the disputed area. The Polaris was at anchor at the time of the incident, and Piraeus was departing Tuas.

In the aftermath, Singapore claimed that the accident occurred in Singaporean waters, within Tuas' port boundaries. "MPA is deeply concerned that the presence of the unauthorised vessels in our port limits can cause confusion for the international shipping community and threaten navigational safety in our waters," said Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority in a statement.

However, Malaysia claimed that the accident occurred within Malaysian waters off Johor Bahru. Malaysian investigators boarded both vessels to conduct an inquiry, and they detained the Piraeus

"It’s within Johor Bahru Port limit. So, no question of unauthorised entry into Singapore waters. We engaged Polaris to monitor the safety of navigation within the area. It’s our port,” said Malaysian Marine Department head Datuk Baharin Abdul Hamid.