The case of Pedra Branca stands among the relatively few instances in the region when states had adopted the rational path of applying institutional means, carefully developed under the United Nations system, to help put to rest long-simmering territorial disputes. This came about after Singapore and Malaysia agreed to let the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the UN, rule on the ownership of the rocky islet claimed by both states.
Alternatives like gunboat diplomacy stoke the flames and are exploited by ultra-nationalists and politicians of various stripes to advance their own causes. Older Singaporeans will recall the fury that was once whipped up, which led to "calls by Malaysian politicians for the government to send warships" to Pedra Branca, as reported by Malaysian newspaper The Star in 2002.
Thankfully, cool heads prevailed, and the claims were tested instead in the UN court. In 2008, it awarded the ownership of the islet to Singapore, which had taken possession of Pedra Branca in 1847. It also ruled that Malaysia's claim over Middle Rocks was valid.
The decision was accepted calmly by both sides but some in Malaysia, who still hankered for the islet, later questioned the ruling because it had been made by "outsiders".
An impartial and disinterested assessment is precisely one of the key merits of applying international laws and conventions to manage conflicts, particularly those endangering peace and security in the region. It is a process that should be allowed to run its course undisturbed once again, now that Malaysia has filed an application for a revision of the Pedra Branca ruling, citing "new facts" that have come to light. Singapore will once again participate in the proceedings and has formed a senior team to study the issues.
Any revision application needs to be based on some new overwhelming facts, unknown at the time of the original hearing, to be admissible. If the court admits the application, there is considerable benefit in settling the territorial question judicially, and in arriving at an outcome that will be final and binding. This could in turn facilitate the multilateral settlement of the sea border in an area between Pedra Branca and Bintan island.
Commendably, the sea border in waters between Changi and Batam were settled by a treaty adopted by Singapore and Indonesia and ratified by Indonesian lawmakers last December. Such diplomatic and legal means of bringing clarity to issues of sovereignty and administration remain better ways of defusing the angst on the ground when politics turns lumps of rock into emblems of misplaced national pride.
Left to fester, thorny territorial issues might threaten freedom of navigation, imperil peace in the region, and derail its economic development.