The battle for Pedra Branca: Malaysia renews claims after new facts discovered

The Malaysian government has submitted an application to review the International Court of Justice judgment that awarded Singapore the island of Pedra Branca nine years ago. The timing of the application suggests the move may be motivated by the upcoming general elections.

By Hisyam Nasser, edited by John Pennington

Malaysia submitted an application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to review a ruling made back in 2008 that awarded Singapore sovereignty over Pedra Branca. The application, filed on 2nd February this year, cited the discovery of three documents in the United Kingdom’s National Archives as new evidence.

The first two documents were internal correspondence of Singapore colonial authorities and an incident report a British naval officer filed in 1958. The third was an annotated map of naval operations from the 1960s.

Malaysia claimed that these documents show that, “Officials at the highest levels in the British colonial and Singaporean administration appreciated that Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh did not form part of Singapore’s sovereign territory.”

They added that the ICJ would have been forced to, “reach a different conclusion on the question of sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh had it been aware of this new evidence.”

Pedra Branca is important to Singapore

Sitting at the eastern entrance of the Straits of Singapore, the island is important for both countries. Singapore can comfortably monitor any ships entering from the east. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that around 900 ships pass through on a daily basis.

Command over Pedra Branca grants Singapore control over these waters and the ships using its trading routes. Due to its strategic value, Singapore is reluctant to relinquish sovereignty of the island to Malaysia.

Professor Tommy Koh, a member of the team of lawyers that argued Singapore’s case for Pedra Branca back in 2008, said that if Malaysia has sovereignty of the island then Singapore can no longer continue to police those waters.

“Freedom of navigation [and] safety of navigation are important interests for Singapore,” he said in an interview prior to the ICJ’s ruling in 2008.

Control of Pedra Branca would strengthen Malaysia’s dominance in the region

If the ICJ rules in favour of Malaysia, then Malaysia could potentially exert its control over the ships entering Singapore’s straits.

A victory for Malaysia would weaken Singapore’s sovereignty in the eyes of other countries – a blow that Singapore cannot afford to take following China’s seizure of its military vehicles in Hong Kong last year.

Pedra Branca would bolster Malaysia’s dominance in the region and give it leverage over Singapore, an outcome that Malaysia’s dominant party, Barisan Nasional (BN), could capitalise on during the upcoming general election.

Political figures support the Malaysian government’s decision to appeal

Prominent political figures have announced their support for the appeal, with the latest being Liow Tiong Lai, President of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).

The Star Online reported that Liow announced the MCA’s support for the appeal at a Chinese New Year open house at the Genting International Convention Centre, adding that Malaysians want the islands back under their control.

Support from the MCA could be the endorsement that BN needs in order to win the support of Malaysian Chinese voters. While Prime Minister Najib Razak uses divisive racial rhetoric to consolidate his support with the Malays, his support among the Malaysian Chinese minority is marginal at best. A ruling in favour of Malaysia could swing voter sentiment in BN’s favour.

However, the ICJ will take time to process Malaysia’s application. Malaysia and Singapore will then have to attend proceedings, meaning that the general elections could conclude before a decision is made. As an example, ICJ court deliberations during the original case lasted six months and that came almost five years after the original dispute was raised.

Malaysia’s timing does not suggest political motivation

Article 61(4) of the Statute of the ICJ states that an application for revision must be made within six months of the discovery of new facts. Malaysia discovered the evidence between 4th August last year and 30th January this year, meaning that its appeal must be filed before 30th July.

Although the appeal may have political ramifications, Malaysian authorities have not directly addressed this issue. Instead, they argued that compliance with ICJ regulations necessitated the timing of their filing and that they brought the new facts to the ICJ’s attention to defend their sovereignty.

“(However) the government will never let go any single possibility to defend our sovereignty because it is paramount to us,” Malaysian deputy foreign minister Reezan Merican Naina Merican said. “We will fight to maintain, defend and retain our sovereignty.” In any event, Singapore will have to mount a defence against Malaysia’s claim to Pedra Branca.

Singapore is sending its best to defend its right to the island

Singapore is not about to concede Pedra Branca without a fight. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that the country has assembled its best legal team to review the new documents presented and assess how seriously they would affect the current ICJ ruling.

The team will include Attorney-General Lucien Wong, Professor S Jayakumar, Professor Koh and former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, all members of the team that represented Singapore at the 2008 international tribunal.

Shanmugam hopes that through the ICJ, the dispute may be resolved amicably, adding that there will always be differences between countries. “In our view, as a small country, the best way of resolving these differences is to have the dispute arbitrated, decided by a neutral international tribunal,” he said.