Still, Dr Ong expects long-standing bilateral issues like Pedra Branca to continue being discussed.
In December 2022, Mr Anwar said after a Cabinet meeting that he had asked the attorney-general to clarify Malaysia’s claims on Pedra Branca, and that he hoped for discussions with Singapore to ensure there were no problems between the two countries.
The dispute over Pedra Branca – a strategic rocky outcrop at the entrance of busy shipping lanes in the Singapore Strait – dates back to 1979, when Malaysia published a map indicating that the island was within the country’s territorial waters.
The matter was brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2003, and in 2008, it ruled that Singapore had sovereignty over Pedra Branca, while Middle Rocks was awarded to Malaysia and South Ledge belonged to the state in whose territorial waters it is located.
In January 2023, Malaysia’s then-attorney-general Idris Harun said in a statement that the Malaysian government respects the ICJ decision, although he added that a Mahathir administration decision in 2018 to withdraw Malaysia’s application to revise the ICJ judgment was “improper”.
Then in February, local media reported Mr Anwar as saying in parliament that the government will table a white paper on the Pedra Branca issue for “further action”, as the premier charged that the previous decision to drop the appeal had led to a loss of Malaysian territory.
“But I notice that the discussions on these sensitive issues have not been publicly disclosed which means that both sides want to work outside the public spotlight to find agreeable ways to resolve these issues,” Dr Ong added.
“This is a good sign.”
SPECIAL ECONOMIC ZONE, HIGH-SPEED RAIL ON THE AGENDA?
Beyond such issues, one important item on the agenda at Monday’s retreat is the planned Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which both countries said will bring tangible benefits in terms of jobs and better livelihoods for their people.
Johor Chief Minister Onn Hafiz Ghazi had told the state assembly in September that officials will discuss and finalise the SEZ’s operational details at the retreat.
While the zone is expected to drive sustainable growth, develop human capital, and improve infrastructure and connectivity, discussions are ongoing and few operational details have emerged.
Separately, Mr Anwar has also announced plans to designate Johor’s beleaguered Forest City development as a Special Financial Zone that analysts say could boost business cooperation between Singapore and Malaysia, although challenges like the poor financial health of Forest City’s Chinese developer Country Garden remain.
Mr Anwar, however, did not specify if this Forest City Special Financial Zone refers to the Johor-Singapore SEZ.
“I think a few proposals on the SEZ will be announced but whether this will include details of the Special Financial Zone involving Forest City remains to be seen, since Singapore will be very cautious with regards to involving this sensitive project in any discussions,” Dr Ong said.
Mr Onn Hafiz said the leaders of both countries will use the retreat to discuss the SEZ’s terms of reference, which according to Malaysian media will include development tasks and a timeframe.
He said the SEZ’s main objective was to ease the movement of people, services and goods between both countries, benefitting the electronics, pharmaceutical, automotive, agriculture, and renewable energy industries.
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