Milestones and challenges in the Singapore-Malaysia leaders' retreat - Hindustan Times
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Milestones and challenges in the Singapore-Malaysia leaders' retreat

ByHindustan Times
Nov 26, 2023 10:35 PM IST

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

On October 30, 2023, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Prime Minister (PM) Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim met in Singapore for the 10th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat. This event held substantial importance as it symbolised a longstanding tradition of bilateral engagement between the two nations. Amidst this milestone, both leaders emphasised their steadfast commitment to this annual platform, which serves as a pivotal space for discussions aimed at fortifying the ties between Singapore and Malaysia. The leaders utilised this Retreat as an opportunity to delve into multifaceted discussions, seeking ways to elevate their cooperation across various sectors. They explored strategies to enhance collaboration on mutual concerns and explored potential avenues for deeper engagement in areas such as trade, security, economy, and regional affairs.

Ministers pose before retreat session on Asean Regional Forum at Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.
Ministers pose before retreat session on Asean Regional Forum at Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.

Significantly, this meeting marked a momentous occasion as it was the inaugural joint Retreat for PM Lee Hsien Loong and PM Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Moreover, given the challenging circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, this was the first Retreat held between Singapore and Malaysia since the outbreak, signifying a renewed commitment to fostering relations despite the disruptions caused by the global health crisis. The leaders acknowledged the deep-rooted geographical, historical, and economic connections that underlie their nations' bilateral relations, emphasising the enduring and diverse nature of their relationship guided by mutual respect and trust. Both countries have seen a significant number of visits and exchanges since reopening their borders in April 2022, signifying a dedicated effort to maintain robust communication channels and nurture this distinctive partnership. This commitment remains crucial, particularly amid a more intricate global landscape and growing uncertainties. The leaders affirmed their dedication to strengthening existing collaborations while exploring new areas of cooperation, aiming to address any concerns through positive dialogue.

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The yearly Leaders’ Retreat, hosted interchangeably in Malaysia and Singapore, stands as a significant forum facilitating discussions and progress in bilateral relations. Inaugurated in 2010 during the Najib Razak administration, this retreat illustrates how a new cohort of visionary leaders is surpassing historical constraints, ideological disparities, and personal differences to bolster bilateral ties through practical cooperation, ultimately benefiting both nations. Previous instances of the annual retreat yielded favourable results, including progress on issues related to the Points of Agreement (POA) concerning Malaysian Railway Lands in Singapore and the formalisation of the Johor-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link through a bilateral agreement. Similarly, during the 10th annual retreat, both parties reaffirmed strong bilateral connections in sectors like investment, trade, business, and transportation.

They also discussed new collaborative areas that have arisen since the inception of the Anwar Ibrahim administration. For instance, there was an agreement to bolster collaboration on the signed Frameworks on Cooperation (FOC) in Digital and Green Economies from January 2023. Strengthening cooperation in the digital realm aims to enhance interoperability in digital commerce and trade. Simultaneously, efforts in green economies aim to accelerate decarbonisation efforts and augment investments in renewable energy. The two countries reached agreements in several fields, including SME development, intellectual property rights, and tackling cross-border crime. A fund to encourage businesses from Singapore and Malaysia to invest in third countries was updated to support firms that want to conduct joint pilots in each other’s countries, especially in emerging areas such as the green economy and digital economy. Additionally, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Enterprise Singapore and SME Corporation Malaysia aims to foster small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) development in both nations. Progress on the MOU focusing on personal data protection, cybersecurity, and the digital economy, signed earlier in January, was also acknowledged by both leaders in a joint statement. In the sphere of IP Rights, The Intellectual Property Office of Singapore and the Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia signed their first-ever agreement on IP cooperation. This pact incorporates patent-oriented initiatives aimed at providing enhanced assistance to innovators and businesses aiming to access both markets.

An agreement between Singapore's education ministry and Malaysia's ministry of higher education is underway, aiming to facilitate increased student and faculty exchanges within higher education institutions of both countries. The impending MOU also focuses on fostering collaboration in sharing information and expertise in technical and vocational education and training. Additionally, it aims to develop training programmes targeted at administrators and academic staff, fostering mutual learning and advancement in the education sector. Both leaders hailed the commendable advancements in constructing the RTS Link between JB and Singapore, expressing assurance that the rail service will be up and running by the conclusion of 2026. A ceremony scheduled for early 2024 will mark the finalization of the drop-in span, a crucial component connecting both ends of the RTS Link's marine viaduct. Once operational, the service will have the capacity to transport 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction. Both nations aim to finalise an agreement on January 11, 2024, to advance the Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone (JS-SEZ), fostering improved trade and mobility across the Causeway and bolstering the Iskandar development region and Singapore's ecosystems.

Furthermore, leaders expressed satisfaction with the advancements made by various work groups focusing on industrial cooperation, immigration, transportation, innovation, tourism, and the environment under the joint ministerial committee for Iskandar Malaysia. Despite deep bilateral cooperation, several issues exist between Malaysia and Singapore. The outstanding issues, which were addressed at the retreat, revolved around the implementation of the International Court of Justice ruling on Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge; maritime boundary delimitation; water agreements; and airspace. In this light, both Singapore and Malaysia have agreed to reevaluate the delegation setup for air traffic services over Southern Peninsular Malaysia, established based on recommendations endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 1973. This arrangement was implemented through the Operational Letter of Agreement between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore Area Control Centres in 1974, specifically addressing Singapore Arrivals, Departures, and Overflights. Both PMs Lee and Datuk Seri Anwar have tasked their respective transport ministers to convene and establish a set of guiding principles and desired outcomes, aiming for swift progress in cooperation between the civil aviation authorities of both countries. Also, Singapore and Malaysia leaders have decided to hold a joint meeting to address unresolved maritime boundary issues and enforce the International Court of Justice's ruling on Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge. Acknowledging progress in the technical working group's first meeting on territorial waters' boundary delineation, they anticipate a second meeting. Both nations agreed to resume talks on water prices under the 1962 Johor River Water Agreement, without compromising their established positions. Additionally, discussions will restart on enhancing water quality and Johor River yield to sustainably meet the terms of the 1962 agreement.

Emphasizing the significance of robust defence collaboration, both parties affirmed their commitment to bolstering regional security through engagements across diverse multilateral platforms. They committed to ongoing joint efforts aimed at combating illicit trafficking of drugs and psychotropic substances while striving to establish a MOU for joint action against transnational crimes. The October 30, 2023, Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat underscored a deep commitment to bilateral ties and collaborative efforts across multiple domains. It marked milestones in transportation with the impending launch of the Johor-Singapore RTS Link, economic advancements through the JS-SEZ agreement, and strides in intellectual property cooperation. However, unresolved issues regarding maritime boundaries, water agreements, and airspace delegation persist, signifying complexities in their relationship. Despite these challenges, both nations showed a resolute commitment to re-evaluate and resolve these matters, emphasising ongoing dialogues and joint efforts to bolster regional security and combat transnational crimes. The Retreat symbolises a renewed dedication to navigate challenges collectively while fortifying bilateral relations, fostering mutual growth, and ensuring stability in the region.

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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