Malaysia, Singapore set to reopen borders to some travel

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Cross-border travel allowed to resume among majority Malay-Muslim countries, effectively taking half of the world’s population off the chopping block

Malaysia, Singapore set to reopen borders to some travel

Most of the world’s most economically and politically important Muslim-majority countries will allow their citizens to travel between them after talks to resolve a long-standing ban ended, officials from Malaysia and Singapore said on Tuesday.

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, three of the five countries covered by the agreement, issued a joint statement saying that discussions on the deal were concluded last week and it would be formalised within “a few days”.

The announcement, the first official confirmation of the agreement, came as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up talks on Tuesday in Beijing, where he is trying to address trade irritants before meeting his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, later in the day.

In addition to Malaysia and Singapore, the agreement covers Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest economy, as well as the Muslim-majority countries of the Philippines and Brunei. The fourth, Myanmar, is not directly covered by the agreement, but agreed in February to pursue closer cooperation with Brunei and Singapore.

Under the agreement, citizens of most of the five countries can travel between them, effectively taking half of the world’s population off the chopping block for travel restrictions.

There will be limits, however. Malaysian and Singaporeans will be permitted to travel between themselves up to three times every six months, while Indonesian citizens and those from the Philippines and Brunei will be allowed once every two months.

The decision over transport restrictions was based on the need to preserve “international air traffic connectivity”, according to Singapore’s foreign ministry, but travel between the five countries will be allowed only once every six months. The Vietnamese government did not immediately comment.

Both Malaysia and Singapore were in 2006 ranked as the world’s highest quality cities by World Economic Forum. Yet they also rank among the highest in hostility toward foreigners, with antagonism between ethnic Malays and Chinese predating the birth of modern Malaysia in 1957 and the political rise of the Indian community in Singapore in the 1960s.

That has been exacerbated over the past couple of years, in particular by a crackdown on what the government said was extremist activity within the Malaysian government. That has included charges against the leader of a government-linked Islamic group and others over alleged links to the Islamic State group.

Singapore, meanwhile, has faced protests outside the South China Sea, where the city-state has asserted its sovereignty, including the building of artificial islands on disputed reefs, but has been reluctant to engage any other country on the issue.

Malaysia has been in the centre of controversy over its prosecution of the political opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Despite being exonerated on corruption charges, the supreme court last month ruled he must serve a five-year jail term for sodomy in a case that his supporters say was a bid to destroy his political career.

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The agreement does not address whether the five countries will cooperate in fighting terrorism or join forces against terrorism.

That would require the countries to resolve another longstanding disagreement: whether Muslim-majority Singapore should join Australia, the US and other south-east Asian countries in forming a military coalition led by Washington to fight the Islamic State in the Middle East.

However, the agreement does place limits on the use of military force. All five countries will cooperate “to exchange operational information” and agree not to use military force to enforce the agreement “if warranted or otherwise, without undermining the integrity and effectiveness of the agreement”.

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