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Singapore welcomes visit by Malaysian minister despite protest over provocative act

KUALA LUMPUR (The Straits Times/ANN) - Datuk Seri Azmin is on a two-day visit to Singapore, that follows a decision by Singapore to push back the meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia, originally scheduled for Monday.  

The Singapore Foreign Affairs Ministry said on Sunday (Jan 13) it welcomed Malaysian Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali's initiative to visit Singapore, despite the postponement of an annual bilateral meeting due to a “provocative act” by the chief minister of Johor.

Datuk Seri Azmin began a two-day visit on Sunday that is set to include meetings with Singapore’s National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Dr Balakrishnan said on Facebook that he had a “good meeting of minds” over dinner with Datuk Seri Azmin. He also posted a photo of himself and the Malaysian minister chatting while on a stroll along the Singapore River.

He added that he had an open and candid discussion with Datuk Seri Azmin and said that both ministers, reaffirmed that there are “far more opportunities for Malaysia and Singapore to work together, especially at this time of global economic transformation”.

The meeting comes in the wake of a decision by Singapore to push back the Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia (JMCIM), originally scheduled for Monday. Responding to media queries on Sunday, the Ministry revealed that it had sent a protest note to the Malaysian government on Friday over an intrusion by the Johor chief minister.

“Singapore sent a diplomatic note to Malaysia on 11 January 2019 to protest the unauthorised visit by Johor Menteri Besar Dato’ Osman Sapian on 9 January 2019 to Marine Department Malaysia vessel Pedoman, which was anchored illegally in Singapore Territorial Waters off Tuas,” it said.

“Such a provocative act went against the spirit of the agreement reached a day earlier by Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart, Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, to resolve bilateral issues in a calm and constructive manner.”

It added that the intrusion created an atmosphere “unconducive” for holding the meeting, which led to a decision by Singapore - agreed to by Malaysia - to postpone it.

“Nevertheless, Singapore welcomes Malaysia’s Minister of Economic Affairs Dato’ Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali’s initiative to make a bilateral visit and his upcoming meetings with our Ministers on 13-14 January 2019,” the Ministry said.

The JMCIM was set up in 2007 to study how the two neighbours can work together in the South Johor economic zone of Iskandar.

Earlier in the day on Sunday, the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry had released a statement expressing its confidence in the current momentum of engagement between Malaysia and Singapore and stressed that it is committed to strengthen bilateral ties with the Republic.

Malaysia said that the planned alternative meeting between ministers “demonstrates that ties between the two countries remain strong”.

The meeting will form “the next positive step forward after the fruitful bilateral meeting” held between the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Singapore on Jan 8, it added. 

“The ministry is confident that the current momentum of engagement between Malaysia and Singapore will continue and reiterates its commitment to strengthen bilateral relations with Singapore based on equality and mutual respect.” 

It also said the foreign ministers of both countries “are in communication and agreed that both sides should remain calm and not sensationalise the matter”.

But amid the niceties in the statement was also a rephrasing of the content of Singapore’s diplomatic note to imply that the Johor chief minister had not intruded. It said: “The reason for the postponement, as conveyed by Singapore vide a diplomatic note dated Jan 11, 2019, was due to the visit by YAB Dato’ Osman Sapian, the Chief Minister of Johor, to Johor Baru port in Malaysian territorial waters on Jan 9.” 

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