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Saturday, 24 May 2008

A bittersweet Pedra Branca victory for Singapore

Pedra Branca
After reading the ICJ's ruling on the Pedra Branca case, I realised just how close Singapore came to losing and how busy the government propaganda machine had been working through our local media.

Because Pedra Branca should belong to Malaysia.

No, it's not that I'm unpatriotic. When I had first learned about the ruling through a Twitter tweet, no less. I was so elated patriotically that I had to tweet all about Singapore's sovereignty over Pedra Branca too.

I've since read the International Court of Justice's 81-page ruling on the Pedra Branca case (313KB PDF) (though I admittedly jumped to the respective Conclusion sections about 20 pages into it), and it's one heckuva roller-coaster ride. The first part basically confirmed that Pedra Branca and its surrounding islets had always been part of the Johor Sultanate and was never terra nullius. (And for history buffs, the Court ruled that, though the Sultanate was split in two, there was an agreement whereby their territories were reunited.)

Here's the damning Section 5.3.5:
117. In the light of the foregoing, the Court concludes that Malaysia has established to the satisfaction of the Court that as of the time when the British started their preparations for the construction of the lighthouse on Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh in 1844, this island was under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Johor. (emphasis is mine)
That's why Malaysia won Middle Rocks. The Court had ruled that it was part of the group of islands that included Pedra Branca, and this group had always belonged to Johor (and later, Malaysia).

Singapore won Pedra Branca primarily because of Malaysia's actions (or inaction, as it were), i.e.
  1. In 1953, Johor's Acting State Secretary confirmed point blank that Pedra Branca did not belong to the state.
  2. Malaysia never contested Singapore's management of the lighthouse and other ongoing construction activities.
The Court's ruling, in more layman's terms, is this:
Let's say your neighbour's potted plant sits in your garden. However, he doesn't take care of it and it would have shriveled and died eventually. But you chose to water it, add some fertiliser, spray insect repellent, etc. And when a passer-by asked your neighbour if the plant was his, he said "No!" As a result, you would now be the owner of that potted plant.

And that's how Singapore got Pedra Branca. And that's why I say that Singapore won by a hair. If Malaysia had made more noise over the intervening years, it appears that the Court would have sided with it.

As for South Ledge, it should be clarified that the Court did not explicitly state who owns it. Instead, given its judgment over Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks, it left it to Singapore and Malaysia to work out the territorial boundaries and see which side South Ledge falls on.

Singapore no doubt would want South Ledge. Why? Simple: territory. More specifically, according to the Law of the Sea, a country owns the waters up to 200 nautical miles from its baseline as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). If Singapore snags South Ledge, then that means our baseline is extended all the way to South Ledge, and then our EEZ is 200 miles out. Who knows what lurks in the waters there? Medicine? Food? Oil??? (The EEZ also explains why Singapore wanted Middle Rocks too.)

One fight is over, won with a bloodied nose. Another fight is looming over South Ledge. That should be another battle to behold.



Ed said...

Interesting writeup there. It's a very close fight, you are right. I'm really waiting to see how the ownership of South Ledge pans out.

Yuhui said...

Hey Ed,

Yup, and the South Ledge ownership could be even more complicated, given Indonesia's proximity to the rock.

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