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SINGAPORE: A bold suggestion came late last month from newly appointed Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu.  

One of the first few Cabinet Ministers to be appointed after Pakatan Harapan’s electrifying election victory, he had proposed for both countries to work together to strengthen security cooperation in the eastern Singapore Strait near Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks, which serves as an entry point to the busy Singapore Strait that links major economies in the Middle East and East Asia.

This idea was well received by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen who remarked that “even joint patrols with our agencies and their agencies, I completely agree with that”.

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These remarks from both defence establishments came on the heels of controversial comments from Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed about reviewing the price of water Malaysia sells to Singapore.

But the idea of joint patrols in the area isn’t a new suggestion.

BACK TO 2003

Back in January 2003, then Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar proposed having joint patrols with Singapore off Pedra Branca as the challenges of operating in these narrow straits became clear to both sides.

Syed Hamid’s suggestion came in the wake of the collision between a Republic of Singapore Navy patrol vessel and a cargo ship about 1.8 km off the island.

“To me, it is good when both parties carry out monitoring … each other’s presence is made known so that there will not be any accident,” the top Malaysian diplomat stressed back then, pointing out that waters off the rocky outcrop accommodate a busy international shipping lane. He had added:

I think it’s better for us to cooperate with each other and understand each other’s presence without the intention of getting engaged in aggression or physical contact.

A view of the causeway bordering Malaysia's southern state of Johor Bahru

A view of the Causeway. (Photo: AFP)

Belying these comments were the testy nature of relations between both countries that year.

Both countries were in the midst of negotiating an agreement to refer the dispute over Pedra Branca to the International Court of Justice. 

Negotiations on a package of issues including water, the Causeway Bridge and airspace had just crumbled. Exchanges in the media were heated and acrimonious.

Yet cooperation between the two navies continued apace. Both sides proceeded that year with the annual exercise Malapura, a flagship annual joint training exercise between the Republic of Singapore Navy and the Royal Malaysian Navy, involving warships, fighter jets and maritime patrol aircraft.

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LONGSTANDING RECORD OF SUSTAINED NAVAL LINKS

History tells us that we shouldn’t gloss over the value of sustained, institutionalised military-to-military linkages even in times of political turbulence. Around the world, such linkages often become casualties with downturns in political relations.

Yet it’s precisely in times of tension that militaries ought to maintain those links as a way to promote confidence-building and crisis management.

Even as cooperation between air and land forces may be disrupted, maritime forces, especially navies, are key in promoting interstate relations. Navies serve as their countries’ ambassadors and can help to ensure that political tensions between countries do not translate to blows on the ground in undelimited waters.

This set of bilateral naval links have continued to grow over the decades, and the common security challenges both sides share have led Malaysia and Singapore to work closely together within the rubric of the Malacca Straits Patrols, inaugurated in 2006, with Indonesia and Thailand for example.

Malacca Straits2

A Malacca Straits Patrol exercise held in 2016. (Photo: MINDEF)

BUILDING ON INTEROPERABILITY BETWEEN THE TWO NAVIES

Cooperation also brings professional value to both navies. Exercise Malapura has evolved over the years, with its scope becoming more complex – moving from shipboard tactical procedures of individual vessels to broader operational matters involving planning at group level.

Both navies have also explored developing common operating procedures and naval techniques, jointly tackled topical issues such as rules of engagement, and expanded forces involved to include air force and maritime security elements.

The idea of broadening naval cooperation to operations elsewhere was mooted in 2011 when then Malaysian Defence Minister Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi suggested the two navies cooperate to protect shipping security in the Gulf of Aden, since both forces were already contributing to counter-piracy operations there.

“We are inviting the Singapore Navy to be involved in our operations as it will be part of an international team and not just representing its own country … This is apt as Malaysia and Singapore will be jointly protecting the merchant ships from Southeast Asian countries against piracy,” he remarked.

Suspected pirates keep their hands in the air as directed by a patrol from the guided-missile

Suspected pirates keep their hands in the air as directed by a patrol from the guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf, in the Gulf of Aden. (File photo: AFP/Jason Zalasky)

PERSISTENT SECURITY THREATS

It is a worthwhile idea to expand maritime security cooperation, especially between the two navies, beyond the Malacca Strait to include the eastern Strait of Singapore, around Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks.

In recent years, threats to shipping in the eastern waterways can come from a variety of causes including accidents, piracy and potentially maritime terrorism. Given how much of world trade and energy passes through these waters, cooperation in the area between both sides may go some way to ensure these sea lanes remain safe and secured for international shipping.

For example, in October 2016, two individuals were apprehended by Malaysian authorities in waters off Middle Rocks after conducting unauthorised diving activities there. 

Incidents of men overboard and boats sinking in the vicinity over these two years underscore the utility of both sides cooperating in search-and-rescue operations.

The collision between the American destroyer USS John McCain and an oil tanker near Pedra Branca also illustrates the importance of communications and coordination of movement in those waters.

A temporary patch welded to the area damaged by a collision aboard USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) is p

A temporary patch welded to the area damaged by a collision aboard USS John McCain pictured at Changi Naval Base in Singapore Sep 21, 2017. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Micah Blechner/US Navy Handout via Reuters)

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A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL SETUP

Pushing for closer maritime security cooperation around Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks would be clearly mutually beneficial for both Malaysia and Singapore.

Joint patrols to respond to abrupt contingencies in the area would allow both countries to free up resources and allocate them to other locations. In particular, Kuala Lumpur could assign more maritime security assets to eastern Sabah and the Sulu Sea where piracy incidents have risen in recent years.

But one also should not forget the role of civilian maritime agencies in this potential setup which include the Malaysian Marine Operations Force and Singapore Police Coast Guard, agencies who tackle transnational crime including smuggling.

If both countries decide to ride on the present momentum, Malaysia and Singapore authorities could consider how best to bring together their maritime forces, both military and civilian. A first step may be to  commence a joint feasibility study on a slate of maritime security operations in waters around Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks.

It may be prudent to start small, focusing on search-and-rescue and joint action against transnational crime and counter-terrorism in those waterways.

A more ambitious idea is for exercise Malapura, which has traditionally been conducted in the Malacca Strait, to extend to waters near Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks, and expand into a multi-agency activity involving the two countries’ civilian and maritime law enforcement bodies.

When Singapore as chair of ASEAN this year is advancing confidence-building measures like the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea and both countries are already signatories, such an expansion may be practical because it sensitises other agencies to real-word maritime security operations.

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The road ahead is full of potential. Both countries should seize on this new momentum and build on the strong cooperation between their maritime forces that has been cultivated over the years.

Collin Koh is research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies based at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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