Budget debate

Pedra Branca: Singapore confident of its team and case

Singapore strongly believes that the documents relied on by Malaysia in its bid to overturn a 2008 judgment awarding Pedra Branca to the Republic do not satisfy the criteria under which it applied for a revision.

Its legal team has carefully studied the application that Malaysia filed last month at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), including the three documents it cited to support its bid, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

"We will submit to the ICJ our comprehensive and compelling rebuttal to Malaysia's application by June 14, which is the time limit fixed by the ICJ," he said during the debate on his ministry's budget. "We are confident of our legal team and our case."

He was responding to Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin and Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), who asked about the Pedra Branca case.

Malaysia last month filed an application to revise the 2008 judgment, citing three "new facts" to argue that "Singapore's officials at the highest levels did not consider that Singapore had acquired sovereignty over Pedra Branca from Johor".

It based its application on Article 61 of the ICJ's Statute, which provides that an "application for revision of a judgment may be made when it is based only upon the discovery of some fact of such a nature as to be a decisive factor".

The fact had to be unknown to the court and also to the party claiming revision when the judgment was given.

The request for revision must also be made within six months of discovery of the new fact - in this case, Aug 4, 2016.

Malaysia cited three documents in its application last month. The first is a confidential telegram from Singapore's top colonial official to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1958, which Malaysia says shows that he "did not consider the island of Pedra Branca to be part of Singaporean territory".

The second is a report about a naval incident near Pedra Branca.

The third document is a map of naval operations in the Malacca and Singapore straits from 1962.

Malaysia said two of the documents, from the United Kingdom National Archives, were declassified after the 2008 judgment. The third document's release date is unknown.

The territorial dispute between Singapore and Malaysia had also involved two smaller maritime features, Middle Rocks and South Ledge, near Pedra Branca.

The ICJ, in its 2008 judgment, found that 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.

The three features in the Singapore Strait are located about 40km east of the Republic's main island.

The ICJ had considered correspondence from 1953 between Singapore's colonial officials and Johor as being of central importance.

Johor's top official had written in a 1953 letter that "the Johor government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca". The court found this showed that while Johor had the original title, "as of 1953, Johor understood that it did not have sovereignty over Pedra Branca".

Singapore's legal team on the case includes senior lawyers well- acquainted with the issue. Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore is very fortunate to still have former deputy prime minister and law minister S. Jayakumar, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh and former chief justice Chan Sek Keong - the leading figures in the original team on the Pedra Branca case.

They are working with a younger team of "bright legal minds" in the Attorney-General's Chambers, to build up expertise and experience in the next generation, he added.

On whether this episode will affect ties with Malaysia, Dr Balakrishnan said bilateral relations are excellent, and mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation will continue.

Singaporeans should not be disconcerted by these developments, he said. "Even with the best of diplomatic and personal relationships, we must expect other states to act in their own self-interests."

Part of what underpins Singa- pore's good relations with Malaysia is a commitment by both sides to resolve disagreements amicably, in accordance with international law, while allowing cooperation to continue, he said.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a separate statement yesterday, announced that Singapore has chosen Judge Gilbert Guillaume - a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration who was president of the ICJ from 2000 to 2003 - as a judge ad hoc for the case.

Under the ICJ's Statute, if there is no judge of the nationality of the parties on the Bench of the Court, the parties may each choose a judge ad hoc who will take part in the decision on the case.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Pedra Branca: S'pore confident of its team and case'. Print Edition | Subscribe