Shared airspace is once again causing turbulence between Malaysia and Singapore, with Mahathir Mohamad’s new government saying on Tuesday it would officially protest against low-flying commercial jets entering the Lion City.
Malaysia has been angered by Singapore’s plans to introduce a new radar system that will require planes landing at its secondary civilian airport, Seletar, to make their approach over the southern Malaysian state of Johor. Malaysia says this will adversely affect Johor’s development of high-rise buildings and the operation of its seaport.
Speaking in parliament, Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke said Singapore’s decision to introduce the radar system without consulting Malaysia violated his country’s “sovereign rights”.
Loke said the country’s foreign ministry would “issue a statement of protest immediately to the Singaporeans”, adding the government was “committed to maintaining sovereignty and ensuring that national interests are maintained”.
SCMP’s This Week in Asia approached Singapore’s foreign ministry for comment.
Loke also said Malaysia was seeking to retake control of sections of Singaporean-controlled airspace that were in Malaysian territory.
Under agreements sanctioned by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, air traffic controllers in Singapore – a major aviation hub measuring just 50km from west to east – manage small sections of Malaysian and Indonesian airspace.
But Loke said the Mahathir government elected in May wanted to retake control of the airspace, and would do so gradually over a four-year period beginning from next year.
The staged takeover was necessary to ensure a seamless transition in air traffic control arrangements, Loke said.
The minister added Malaysia would not take a “confrontational stance” but would not compromise on “defending our sovereignty and airspace”.
This is not the first time Singapore and Malaysia have sparred over airspace.
In 1998, during 93-year-old Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister, his government abruptly banned Singaporean military jets from Malaysian air space amid a low point in bilateral ties. Prior to the ban – which Mahathir overturned four years later – the Republic of Singapore Airforce had blanket approval to use part of Malaysian airspace.
There has been occasional discord between the neighbouring countries ever since their acrimonious split in 1965.
Some within the Singapore establishment view Mahathir as encouraging hawkishness towards the Lion City, and fear his return to power will hurt bilateral ties that had strengthened under Mahathir’s (now disgraced) predecessor, Najib Razak.
On an official visit to Singapore in November, Mahathir sought to calm nerves, describing the countries as “twins”.
“Malaysia and Singapore are like twins in a way, excepting that perhaps the elder twin is a little bit bigger than the younger twin, and a little bit older,” said Mahathir. “But we have been able to live together in reasonably harmonious terms.”