Malaysia will defend maritime borders while maintaining good ties with Singapore, says its deputy foreign minister

Pedra Branca island as seen in 2011.
Pedra Branca island as seen in 2011. PHOTO: ST FILE

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's deputy foreign minister said the country will defend its maritime borders and sovereignty if newly discovered historical facts prove that Pulau Batu Puteh belongs to Malaysia.

The island, some 40km east of Singapore at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait, is known as Pedra Branca in Singapore. Britain, and later Singapore, has maintained control over the island since the 1850s.

The Star Online quoted Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican as saying on Sunday (Feb 5) that while the Malaysian government would continue to foster good ties with Singapore, it would also explore the possibilities of gaining sovereignty over the island.

"In 2008, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague gave the island to Singapore, it did not tarnish our relationship," he said. "Trade between Malaysia and Singapore has even increased."

Meantime, a retired top admiral said he's confident that Malaysia has a strong case to apply for a revision of the ICJ judgment, the New Straits Times reported.

 
 

Rear-Admiral (Rtd) Tan Sri K. Thanabalasingam, who played a prominent role in the Malaysian team which argued its case at The Hague in 2008, believed there is fresh, compelling evidence to support Malaysia's call for a review or Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali would not have applied for the revision.

"I believe he is armed with some strong, sufficient and substantial (evidence) that is relevant to initiate the revision, based on new facts from declassified documents released by the British government," he was quoted as saying.

But Mr Thanabalasingam told the newspaper that time is essential in determining if Malaysia's case warrants a hearing.

"It may become a problem if (it turns out that the) documents were declassified much earlier, and we only found out about its contents recently.

"We (could still) apply, but the ICJ will entertain us only if the new evidence is very pertinent for a revision and not any little points to be considered.

"The new evidence must be serious enough to affect the outcome of the earlier decision," he said.

The ICJ found on May 23, 2008, that sovereignty over Pulau Batu Puteh or Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore, sovereignty over Middle Rocks belongs to Malaysia and sovereignty over South Ledge belongs to the state in the territorial waters of which it is located.

A key consideration in its decision was a letter dated Sept 21, 1953, in which Johor's top official informed the British authorities in Singapore that "the Johor government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca".

The court said in its 2008 ruling that it considered this correspondence and its interpretation of central importance for determining the understanding of both parties about sovereignty over the island. It found that Johor's reply showed that "as of 1953, Johor understood that it did not have sovereignty over Pedra Branca".

But last Friday, Malaysia's attorney-general said in a statement that the country had filed an application to revise the ICJ's judgment over the three islands.

The ICJ said in a press statement on Friday that Malaysia cited three documents declassified by Britain to support its application for a revision. They are: Internal correspondence of Singapore colonial authorities in 1958, an incident report filed in 1958 by a British naval officer and an annotated map of naval operations from the 1960s.

These items were discovered in the UK National Archives between Aug 4, 2016 and Jan 30, 2017.

"Malaysia claims that these documents establish the new fact 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' during the relevant period," the ICJ said.

"Malaysia argues 'that the court would have been bound to reach a different conclusion on the question of sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh had it been aware of this new evidence'."

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "Singapore is studying Malaysia's application and documentation closely and has formed its legal team to respond to Malaysia's application".

The team includes Attorney-General Lucien Wong, Professor S. Jayakumar, Professor Tommy Koh and former chief justice Chan Sek Keong.