International law is 'sword and shield' to advance and protect Singapore's interests: Tommy Koh

Professor Tommy Koh.
Professor Tommy Koh.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore has sought to use international law as both a sword to advance aggressive interests, and a shield to protect defensive interests, veteran diplomat Tommy Koh said on Thursday (Oct 8).

Even then, its belief in international law is "not based on blind faith", he added.

"We know that the International Rule of Law is weak and cannot deter an aggressive big power, such as Russia, from using its superior military force to secure its strategic objectives," said Professor Koh, who chairs the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore.

"We accept the reality that when there is a collision between law and military power, the latter usually prevails. At least, in the short-term," he added.

This is why, in spite of Singapore's attachment to international law within those limits, the "first principle" of its foreign policy has always been to be strong economically and militarily, so that it can defend its independence and territorial integrity, he said.

Prof Koh, who is also an Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was giving a lecture titled "Singapore & International Law: A 50-Year Retrospective" to members of the Law Society of Singapore.

Singapore, he said, should also work assiduously to strengthen the International Rule of Law because "we want to live in a world which is ruled by law rather than by force".

Prof Koh used history to illustrate his point, citing five cases in which Singapore has relied on international law to protect its interests.

- In 1961 and 1962, Singapore had entered into Water Agreements with Johor. As Johor is a constituent state of Malaysia, it does not have the legal status to enter into an international treaty.

To protect its vital interests, Singapore inserted a "water clause" in the Independence of Singapore agreement with Malaysia, that required the Malaysian Government to guarantee that the Johor Government would abide by the terms of the water agreements. Singapore also registered the independence agreement with the United Nations as an international treaty.

- In 1994, when Malaysia imposed a protectionist trade measure to protect a Malaysian company against competition from Singapore, Singapore tried to resolve the dispute through consultations and negotiations. When these proved fruitless, it decided to invoke a dispute settlement mechanism with the World Trade Organisation. The policy was eventually rescinded.

- In 2004, Indonesia alleged that a consignment of compost sent to Batam and meant for use as soil conditioner and fertilizer contained heavy metals and was "hazardous waste" under Indonesian law. Indonesia notified the secretariat of the Basel Convention, which regulates the movement of such waste across borders, and an expert found that the material was not hazardous. Still, Singapore "generously offered to take the material back", said Prof Koh.

This showed that Singapore should abide scrupulously by international law and defend its good reputation and legal rights, but could also "give face to our neighbours", he added.

He also cited two separate disputes with Malaysia: the first, over land reclamation off Pulau Tekong and Tuas, and the second, over Pedra Branca.

The fact that amicable settlements could be reached following rulings by the respective international tribunals means these will no longer be divisive issues in bilateral relations, he said.