Ministry of foreign Affairs (MFA) has announced that it has formed a legal team to respond to Malaysia’s application to review a 2008 judgement by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the award of Pedra Branca to Singapore.
The Ministry also said that it is studying Malaysia’s application and documentation closely.
MFA announced that the team consists of Attorney-General Lucien Wong, Professor S. Jayakumar, Professor Tommy Koh and former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong.
Pedra Branca is an island that sits at the eastern entrance of the Straits of Singapore. It lies about 24 nautical miles to the east of Singapore.
Its location has long been of strategic importance to the country as it commands the entire eastern approach to the Straits of Singapore, through which almost 900 ships pass daily.
The oldest feature on the island is Horsburgh Lighthouse, which was built on the island by the British between 1847 and 1851.
Malaysian Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali filed the application with the ICJ at The Hague on Thursday (2 February) over the sovereignty of Pedra Branca.
In a statement, Mr Apandi said, “The application was made by Malaysia upon the discovery of some fact of such a nature as to be a decisive factor, which fact was, when the judgment was given, unknown to the Court and also to Malaysia as the party claiming revision.”
“We are also confident that the requirements as stipulated under Article 61 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice have been met in that, inter alia, the application for revision is brought within six months of the discovery of the new fact, and within 10 years of the date of the Judgment,” he added.
Mr Apandi noted that Malaysia’s application or a revision of the judgement was a continuation of the process embarked on 9 May 2003 by both Malaysia and Singapore. At that time, both parties had agreed to submit the dispute pertaining to sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge to the ICJ (“Special Agreement”).
He then added that the discovery of the new fact was important and should be ventilated in a court of law accordingly, saying, “Thus, as agreed by both parties in the Special Agreement, the International Court of Justice is the appropriate forum for this.”
However, when asked about the details provided in the application, he declined to explain any further, saying that the Republic will be served with the relevant papers when the country has received the notification.
It is Singapore’s case that Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore because the British colonial government took possession of the island over 160 years ago to build Horsburgh Lighthouse and other structures on it. At that time, Pedra Branca was uninhabited and it belonged to no one.
Since then, Singapore has continuously and openly conducted acts of a sovereign nature over the entire island and its surrounding waters. In contrast, Malaysia did nothing and did not protest against any of the actions of Singapore.
In 1953, Johor stated in official correspondence with Singapore that it did not claim ownership over Pedra Branca. Malaysia also published a series of official maps from 1962 to 1975 depicting Pedra Branca as belonging to Singapore.
However, the dispute arose in 1979 when Malaysia published a map which claimed the island. In response, Singapore lodged a formal protest with Malaysia, in early 1980.
Singapore and Malaysia agree that bringing this matter before the ICJ will remove an irritant from the bilateral relations between the two countries.
It took slightly more than 20 years, from the time the dispute arose in 1979, for it to be finally brought before the ICJ. This suggestion was first made by Singapore in 1989. Malaysia accepted this proposal in 1994.
The two countries agreed on the text of a Special Agreement (a formal agreement that was needed for the submission of this dispute to the ICJ) in 1998. Finally, the Special Agreement was signed on 6th February 2003 by the Foreign Ministers of both countries, and formally notified to the ICJ on 24 July 2003.
There were several rounds of written pleadings and public hearings. Then finally on 23 May 2008, the Court ruled that Pedra Branca is in Singaporean territory. While, the sovereignty over the Middle Rocks, a maritime feature to the south of Pedra Branca, belonged to Malaysia.
However, the court refrained from awarding South Ledge, also to the south of Pedra Branca, to either Malaysia or Singapore.
The ICJ stated that it had found that Singapore investigated shipwrecks within Pedra Branca’s territorial waters and granted or did not grant permission to Malaysian officials to survey the waters surrounding the island.
The ICJ also noted that Malaysia did not react to the flying of the Singapore ensign on the island and Singapore’s installation of military equipment on the island.