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S’pore once controlled the entirety of M’sia’s airspace but handed back authority to M’sia in 1973

We pored through historical archives so you don’t have to.

Did you know, besides the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR), Singapore controlled the South Johore FIR and the South China Sea Oceanic FIR?

The Flight Information Region is the area of airspace controlled by a country’s civil air traffic authority to provide flight information service to civilian aircraft flying through the area in the interest of aviation safety – not sovereign control.

Singapore once controlled the air traffic management of the entire Malaysian airspace pre-1973 – more specifically, the airspace above 15,000ft over Peninsular Malaysia, and 25,000ft over East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak).

We’ve pored through national archives, including leaked United States (US) embassy cables to detail the chronology of events from the 1940s to 1980s, and right up to the present day.

1940s

The original Singapore FIR, which was assigned by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 1946, is a region of airspace of “three-quarters of a million square miles“, including the whole of Malaysia (aka Malaya), part of the Borneo islands, and large areas of the South China Sea, including the sea between Peninsular and East Malaysia).

Source: Department of Civil Aviation (Singapore), 1945

The FIR at the time was allocated on the basis of administrative convenience for air traffic controllers communicating with pilots travelling through the airspace, to ensure the safety and smooth operation of civil aviation in the area.

September 1973: Malaysia requests ICAO to delegate back control of its airspace which was then managed by Singapore

During the Asia-Pacific Regional Air Navigation (RAN) Meeting held in Honolulu, Hawaii between September 5 – 28, 1973, the Malaysian government requested ICAO to handover certain parts of the Singapore FIR back to Malaysia.

The handover was to be done in two phases, beginning in 1974 and completed by the year end of 1975.

The request was accepted by ICAO member countries.

The Kuala Lumpur FIR and Kota Kinabalu FIR were born.

1976: Singapore hands over control of Malaysian airspace in East and West Malaysia

On Jan 1, 1976, ICAO officially fragmented Singapore FIR into three parts – Singapore FIR, Kuala Lumpur FIR and Kota Kinabalu FIR.

Source: Department of Civil Aviation (Malaysia)

Singapore was given control over South Johore airspace and the South China Sea region because the bulk of flights in the region either originate in or are abound for Singapore.(Reference – Business Times, 23 January 1981) and that ICAO member states felt Singapore was better equipped for the purpose. (Reference – The Straits Times, 1 January 1981)

On October 8, 1976, Malaysia officially took over air traffic control of its delegated territories in East and West Malaysia.

Here are some archives of newspaper clippings reporting the events at the time:

1980s: Spotlight on issue of South Johore airspace delegated to S’pore by ICAO

Highlight in yellow shows the disputed airspace in South Johore, Department of Civil Aviation (Malaysia)

In September 1980, Malaysia wanted Singapore’s control of the South Johore airspace and the area between Peninsular and East Malaysia in the South China Sea to be modified.

Their proposal (Reference – The Straits Times, 1 January 1981):

  1. Reduce Singapore’s control of flights within a radius of 48km north of Pulau Ubin and an altitude of only up to a flight level of 3,048m (10,000ft).
  2. Increase the altitude of its control over the South China Sea (between Peninsular and East Malaysia) from 6,094 metres (20,000 feet) to 14,020 metres (46,000 feet) to facilitate air traffic movement between Peninsular and East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak).

In response, Singapore said Malaysia’s proposal may increase the risk of air mishaps.

“…this proposal will mean that air traffic controllers will have five minutes or less to bring in an aircraft, from the present 10 to 15 minutes.”
(Reference – The Straits Times, 1 January 1981)

The paper added: “The vertical and horizontal restriction of Singapore’s control over this airspace was also technically unacceptable as aircraft taking off in a southerly direction will need to turn around on a journey northwards. Hence, the aircraft would have exceed the 10,000 feet horizontal limit.”

On March 4, 1981, talks began on the South Johore airspace in Bangkok’s RAN meeting. It was to be mainly a “technical and exploratory one (Reference – The Business Times, 4 Mar 1981).”

Another round of talks began on January 18, 1983, in the ICAO RAN meeting in Singapore.

Singapore rejected Malaysia’s proposal and reiterated that the “status quo should be maintained”. The republic highlighted their “proven track record” of providing a “high degree of safety and efficiency” in air traffic management over the South Johore FIR and the South China Sea Oceanic FIR. (Reference – The Straits Times, 18 January 1983)

Malaysia’s proposal was eventually shelved by ICAO.

2018: Malaysia wants to ‘reclaim delegated airspace’ in Southern Johor.

This is where we are at currently.

Malaysia’s claim now is that the flight path for aircraft landing at Seletar due to Singapore’s installation of an “Instrument Landing System (ILS)” would lead to height limits around Pasir Gudang, which could “stunt” development and affect shipping operations at the port.

See the back-and-forth between Malaysia and Singapore on the new claims here.

Leaked US embassy cables puts things in perspective on the 1973 delegation of Singapore’s control of Malaysian airspace to Malaysia.

According to leaked United States (US) embassy cables, Malaysia in 1968, did not object to Singapore’s control of the whole of Malaysian airspace.

In 1973 however, Malaysia was “desirous of operating its own FIR when technically competent.”

The cable added: “GOM (Government of Malaysia) FIR proposal indicate they (are) planning to advance it as a technical exercise of their right under ICAO convention.”

Malaysia was referring to Article 1 of the ICAO convention, or more specifically the Chicago Convention – the father agreement of all civil aviation treaties. This is what Article 1 states:

You can read the cables here and here.

Can Malaysia take back control of its airspace?

Yes they can. As shown in the events above, they’ve done it before.

Any changes to the FIR need to be in accordance with ICAO standards, processes and procedures, to ensure aviation safety for the millions that travel by flights in the region.

If Malaysia can prove that they are technically competent to manage the highly complex airspace in the South Johore airspace, they can propose to ICAO for consideration.

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