SINGAPORE: Three legal and diplomatic stalwarts have published a book documenting the case Singapore prepared against Malaysia over the sovereignty of Pedra Branca.
In 2017, Malaysia had filed applications requesting interpretation and revision of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) 2008 judgment, which ruled that Singapore had sovereignty over Pedra Branca.
Just two weeks before the scheduled oral hearings, however, Malaysia decided to drop the cases. A new government headed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had come into power, following the landmark elections last May.
READ: Malaysia files new application to ICJ on Pedra Branca ruling; Singapore says it's 'without merit'
“I felt like a boxer that had trained for 17 months for an important contest, and at the last minute to be given a walkover,” said Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh, co-author of Pedra Branca: Story of the Unheard Cases.
“So the three of us decided to do the next best thing – write a book about it,” he added at the book launch on Wednesday (Jan 30).
His co-authors are former deputy prime minister S Jayakumar and Deputy Attorney-General Lionel Yee.
They recount how Singapore’s team prepared for the cases, and reveal behind-the-scenes accounts of the “unheard cases”. The book also serves as a sequel to Pedra Branca: The Road to the World Court, which was co-authored by professors Koh and Jayakumar.
Both of them were were part of the legal team that Singapore had assembled for Malaysia’s challenge to the ICJ judgment, along with Attorney-General Lucien Wong and former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong.
READ: Singapore open to increasing security cooperation with Malaysia around Middle Rocks, Pedra Branca: Ng Eng Hen
Speaking at the event, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan commended the close inter-agency teamwork in preparing for the case. He noted that the team comprised people from the second, third and fourth generations of civil servants across four ministries, as well as the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and the National Archives of Singapore.
“Whenever our national interests are challenged, it is crucial that Singapore is able to mount a response that is robust and vigorous. And to do so, we need – we will always need – resourceful, experienced and committed officers, and the ability to function as a whole of government across all agencies,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
References were also made at the launch event to the ongoing maritime and airspace dispute between Singapore and Malaysia. Prof Koh explained why efforts were taken last December to forestall any attempt to open a third-party adjudication process on maritime boundary disputes.
“All we want to do is to be consulted, to agree on the choice of forum, and the precise manner that the issue is to be framed,” said Prof Koh.
He also said it was fortunate that both Malaysia and Singapore believe in the rule of law.
Prof Jayakumar, who was also law and foreign affairs minister, added that apart from strong legal and diplomatic officers, good political leadership is also key in dealing with such diplomatic issues.
“You need good political leadership to manage the bilateral relations, in such a way that you keep things on an even keel,” he said. “Don’t let the latest issue derail the overall tenor of cooperation and bilateral relations. I think that’s very important.”
“Second, I think it’s important to have a sense of national unity and consensus,” he added. “It’s good that … there was a sense of support for the government and for the team in dealing with Pedra Branca, or the more recent problems we’ve had. And that sense of unity amongst the people really helps.”
A rocky outpost located 44km off Singapore’s east coast, the dispute over the ownership of Pedra Branca, referred to by Malaysia as Batu Puteh, dates back to 1979 when Malaysia published a map indicating that the island was within the country’s territorial waters.
Singapore protested and the matter was brought to the ICJ in 2003.
On May 23, 2008, the ICJ ruled that Singapore had sovereignty over Pedra Branca, while Middle Rocks was awarded to Malaysia and South Ledge belonged to the state in whose territorial waters it is located.