Sunday, May 25, 2008

After The Hague, it's time to move on

By Abdul Ghafur Hamid

IT was a suspenseful time for both Malaysian and Singaporean delegations to the Hague when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered its judgment on Friday. The judgment was not a winner-take-all but a split one, adjudging Pulau Batu Puteh (PBP) to Singapore, Middle Rocks to Malaysia, and South Ledge to the state in the territorial waters of which it is located.

PBP is a small granite rocky island, 137m by 60m (roughly half the size of a football field), which is located 7.7 nautical miles to the south of Johor and approximately 24 nautical miles to the east of Singapore.

The island is called Pulau Batu Puteh (White Rock Island) by Malaysia and Pedra Branca by Singapore.

The dispute arose on Feb 14, 1980, when Singapore protested against the 1979 map published by Malaysia showing PBP as part of Malaysian territory. Singapore claimed the Middle Rocks and South Ledge, two marine features near the island, in February 1993.

After exhausting a few years of bilateral consultations, the two countries submitted their dispute to the ICJ on July 24, 2003.
According to the Malaysian argument, PBP, the two marine features, and other islands in and around Singapore Strait were part of the Johor Sultanate before 1824.

This situation was confirmed by the Crawfurd Treaty of 1824, which ceded to Great Britain the Island of Singapore and all islets and rocks within 10 geographical miles off Singapore, but otherwise left the territory of Johor unaffected.

Therefore, Malaysia primarily invoked the original title over the island and two marine features by the Sultan of Johor from time immemorial. The main Malaysian stand before the ICJ was that PBP was not a no man's land (terra nullius) when the British East India Company constructed the Horsburgh Lighthouse on the island and sought and obtained the permission of the sultan and Temenggong of Johor to build the lighthouse on the island. Malaysia argued that Singapore's presence on the island was merely as lighthouse administrator. Neither Great Britain nor Singapore ever exercised sovereignty over the three features.

The main Singaporean contention was that the island and two marine features were terra nullius when the British constructed the lighthouse. They argued that the construction of the lighthouse and the authorisation of the British Crown constituted a classic taking of possession of a territory as a sovereign.

Title was acquired by the British in accordance with the legal principles governing the acquisition of territory in 1851. The title acquired in 1851 has been maintained by the British and its lawful successor, Singapore, for about 150 years and during such a long period Malaysia did not make any protests apart from the first assertion of sovereignty in 1979.

Singapore, therefore, primarily relied on the taking of possession of a territory not owned by any state and the continuous, peaceful and effective exercise of state authority over it.

From the perspective of international law, this case is a competition between a claim based on original title (Malaysia) and one invoking title by means of taking possession of a terra nullius and "peaceful and continuous exercise of state authority" (Singapore).

Malaysia maintains a track record of peacefully settling differences with neighbouring countries. It is a consistent practice of Malaysia to resort to international dispute resolution only when diplomatic means such as negotiation and consultation are exhausted.

A tremendous effort was made in the preparations for the Pulau Batu Puteh case. The Malaysian legal team was led by Malaysia's Agent Tan Seri Abdul Kadir Mohamad, and Co-Agent Datuk Noor Faridah Ariffin.

Counsel and advocates for Malaysia included the (then) foreign minister of Malaysia, the attorney-general of Malaysia, and eminent international law experts such as professors James Crawford and Sir Elihu Lauterpacht QC from Cambridge University and Professor Nicolaas Jan Schrijver from Leiden University.

Head, deputy head and a strong team of federal counsel from the International Affairs Division of the A-G's Chambers were also part of the team.

The Malaysian legal team established a case that was the result of a thorough research for nearly 30 years, conducted by experts from various ministries and government departments, including academia.

The preparations for the case were the co-ordinated efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the A-G's Chambers, the National Archives of Malaysia, the Department of Survey and Mapping and the Johor government, to mention only a few.

Based on this research, the legal team prepared one of the most compelling arguments to the ICJ, consisting of Written Memorials of 172 pages, Counter Memorials of 306 pages, and Reply of 213 pages, a number of documents and maps, together with oral submissions by counsel.

Now the much awaited judgment has come out. As far as PBP itself is concerned, the ICJ first of all accepted the Malaysian contention and concluded that the Sultanate of Johor had sovereignty over the island by means of original title from time immemorial.

The ICJ, however, found that the following acts and omissions of the parties since 1953 had decisively changed the legal position:

(1) the reply by the acting state secretary of Johor to the Singaporean government that the "Johor Government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca"; [Refer HERE]

(2) the investigation of shipwrecks by Singapore within the island's territorial waters;

(3) the permission granted or not granted by Singapore to Malaysian officials to survey the waters surrounding the islands; and,

(4) the absence of protest from Malaysia to the flying of the Singapore ensign on the island, the installation of military communications equipment on the island in 1977 and the proposed plans by Singapore to extend the island as well as a few specific publications and maps.

The ICJ concluded that sovereignty over PBP had passed to Singapore due to peaceful and continuous display of sovereign acts on the part of Singapore since 1953 and acquiescence on the part of Malaysia.

Middle Rocks and South Ledge are maritime features located at 0.6 and 2.2 nautical miles respectively from PBP. Middle Rocks consist of some rocks that are permanently above water whereas South Ledge is a low-tide elevation.

In the absence of proof to the effect that the ancient and original title of the Sultan of Johor over Middle Rocks had passed to Singapore like in the case of PBP, the ICJ adjudged that sovereignty over Middle Rocks remained with Malaysia.

Since South Ledge is a low tide elevation and not an island, a specific legal principle applies. A low tide elevation is owned by the state in the territorial waters of which it is located.

South Ledge now falls within the overlapping territorial waters of the main land Malaysia, PBP and Middle Rocks.

The ICJ was not asked by the parties to delimit their territorial waters and as there are overlapping territorial waters in the area, the ICJ left open the question of sovereignty over South Ledge, which is to be determined by the parties themselves in future by delimiting their overlapping territorial waters.

The judgment of the ICJ is based on facts and evidence and in accordance with its consistent jurisprudence.

In any legal case, a party can only prepare the best case for it. Once the judgment has come out, it is the obligation of each party to abide by it no matter what the judgment is if supremacy of law is to be observed.

Since Malaysia owns Middle Rocks, which is only 0.6 nautical miles from PBP, Singapore cannot make any unilateral decision or work to reclaim land around the island.

It is also an urgent need for the two countries to negotiate the delimitation of territorial waters in the area. Now is the time for the two countries to fully co-operate in a spirit of the utmost friendliness.

In any case, let us give credit to those who deserve it - the Malaysian legal team and those who assisted in one way or another in preparing the Malaysian case - for their hard work and a wonderful job done.

Dr Abdul Ghafur Hamid @ Khin Maung Sein is professor of international law at the International Islamic University Malaysia. He may be contacted at

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