What’s Behind the Malaysia-Singapore Dispute?

This Week in Asia takes you over the main sticking points in the relationship between the neighbours.

Bhavan Jaipragas, SCMP

Asia watchers are used to watching neighbours Singapore and Malaysia lightheartedly lob insults at each other over the provenance of their joint cuisine. But the Southeast Asian countries ended 2018 with a far more sombre dispute than their decades-old food fight – one that has continued into the new year.

The row over airspace and maritime boundaries has given rise to jingoism on both sides, and observers say the bilateral relationship is currently at its worst state in two decades.

The downturn comes after veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad, 93, returned as prime minister last May after an election in which his scandal-haunted predecessor and one-time protégé Najib Razak was roundly trounced. Just last January, ahead of the polls, Najib had declared that the “confrontational diplomacy” between the neighbours that marked Mahathir’s first stint in power from 1981 to 2003 was firmly in the past. He spoke too soon.

This Week in Asia takes you over the main sticking points in the relationship between the neighbours.


As one of the world’s busiest maritime hubs, Singapore is expectedly finicky about its maritime boundaries – especially when they are challenged.

For the Port of Singapore to continue to thrive, waters within the port limits need to be clearly defined and not subject to territorial disputes.

But this was exactly what happened on October 25 last year. Malaysia, through a government proclamation called a gazette, declared that it was extending the boundary of its Johor Bahru port into waters Singapore deemed its own.

The Lion City claims the disputed waters are outside Malaysia’s most extensive maritime boundaries – which the island nation also rejects.

Instead, Singapore says “since at least 1999” it has been exercising its jurisdiction in the waters Malaysia claims now as within the Johor Bahru port limit. In a response to the Malaysian declaration, Singapore on December 6 declared the disputed waters to be part of its port limits.

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