KL abandons Pedra Branca case ahead of ICJ hearings

It gives up for good the right to dispute ruling that awarded island's sovereignty to S'pore

Malaysia has withdrawn its application to revise a 2008 judgment on Pedra Branca, relinquishing for good its right to challenge the ruling that awarded sovereignty of the island to Singapore.

It will also discontinue a separate application for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to interpret that same judgment issued on May 23, 2008.

The withdrawal comes just two weeks before scheduled hearings for both cases, and it means the 10-year window for revision has lapsed. Under the ICJ's Statute, an application for revision must be made within 10 years of the judgment.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in a statement yesterday, said Malaysia had informed the ICJ on Monday that it would stop the proceedings it had initiated earlier.

A day later, Singapore told the court it agreed with Malaysia's request to discontinue proceedings.

Malaysia's Solicitor-General had earlier written to inform Singapore's Attorney-General of Malay-sia's intention, and Singapore replied to convey its agreement on this count, MFA said.

In letters dated May 29, the ICJ informed both countries it had placed on record the discontinuance of proceedings, and directed that the cases be removed from the court's list.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday that Singapore had been confident of its case and the correctness of the original ICJ decision. "When Malaysia requested to discontinue the cases, without them being argued, we were happy to agree. Both Malaysia and Singapore had gone through the due legal process and put this matter to rest," he said.

Malaysia's withdrawal brings to a close a long-running saga which began in 1979 and was thought to have been resolved when the ICJ ruled in 2008 that Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore.

Malaysia applied to revise the ICJ's judgment on Feb 2 last year.

The small island of Pedra Branca - also known as Pulau Batu Puteh - houses the Horsburgh Lighthouse, and is located about 40km east of Singapore's main island.

In 2008, the court also ruled on the sovereignty of two other maritime features near Pedra Branca: It said Middle Rocks belongs to Malaysia, but it did not make a definitive ruling on South Ledge, saying it belongs to whoever owns the territorial waters it sits in.

In its application for revision last February, Malaysia had cited three new documents discovered in the British Archives. It based its application on Article 61 of the ICJ's Statute, which states that an application to revise a judgment may be made when there is discovery of a fact which would be a "decisive factor" and not known at the time of judgment.

On June 30 last year, Malaysia submitted a second application asking the ICJ to declare the waters around Pedra Branca to be Malaysian waters - and, by extension, to rule South Ledge belongs to Malaysia. Public hearings on both cases were scheduled over eight days next month from June 11 to 22.

Singapore filed its rebuttal on May 24 last year, contending that the documents Malaysia relied on do not satisfy the criteria for a revision application. On Oct 30 last year, Singapore filed its rebuttal to Malaysia's request for interpretation.

Singapore had earlier said that it considered Malaysia's application for interpretation unnecessary and without merit.

Mr Yang Razali Kassim, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad might have been briefed by his officials about the pros and cons of pursuing the applications, and concluded it could be tough for KL to succeed. Tun Dr Mahathir might have also concluded that the whole pursuit at ICJ would be a distraction from his top priority of reducing the national debt and finances.

"Besides, engaging international lawyers to fight such a high-profile case would be an expensive business. So, in the end, it could be a matter of Dr Mahathir trying to cut his losses," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2018, with the headline 'KL abandons Pedra Branca case ahead of ICJ hearings'. Print Edition | Subscribe