Sunday, June 01, 2008

Glimmer of hope burns brightly

Despite the May 23 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on Batu Puteh, Malaysians are still asking questions about its loss to Singapore. However, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim tells Paul Gabriel there’s hope yet.

His point of view: Rais says not many people appreciate the fact Malaysia won Middle Rocks.

You described the ICJ judgment as a “win-win” situation for Malaysia and Singapore. But many criticised the way you deemed it as we lost the crux in contention – Batu Puteh.

I still maintain my stand that we have half the victory, and half the failure. All are rocks anyway, there is no mempelam (mango) there, nothing, not even a blade of grass. But people like to rub it in. But let's face it. Malaysia did not lose all. Whoever says that, either he or she does not understand the international law result, or they are playing belukar politics.

There are those who say that Malaysia lost out to Singapore in terms of legal expertise, as they also had the Chief Justice in their team. How do you respond?

It is a subjective assessment, of course. The fact that Batu Puteh is not with Malaysia now, I think that is the nagging problem. The fact that we have Middle Rocks, not many people appreciate.

We had a good legal team. Luminaries in international law were with us. Elihu Lauterpacht, James Crawford, these are big names. Singapore did not have big names, but they got the failure of history to be noted ie why the maps of Malaysia were put forward to be the principle document to be exhibited. Which means we ourselves recognised that Batu Puteh was not under the jurisdiction of Malaysia. This is as much as saying the island did not belong to us, so it is not on our maps.

And then the letter of Sept 12, 1953 (written by the Acting State Secretary of Johor that the Johor government did not claim ownership of the island) which was obtained by the British, was vital. Coupled with the fact that for over 100 years, Johor or the Federation of Malaya did not do anything to supervise or administer Batu Puteh. Of course, we were saying other things, but this were the primary evidence that the court held.

We did put up very strong arguments on certain other aspects, but these were not evidenced by proper documents.

You were appointed Foreign Minister only in March this year. So, you did not have any part to play on the course of the case?

Yes, I came in at the tail end. I was the Foreign Minister in 1986 for a year. I am suffering the backlash, while the others (previous foreign ministers involved in the case) are bersiul-siul (whistling). I wish I was there at the beginning.

What would you have done differently then?

I would have told the Prime Minister then (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) not to agree to go to the ICJ. That would have been one. The other is, to leave no stone unturned in terms of documentary evidence. Thirdly, the ministerial satisfaction should have been one of the factors to be determined before asking the PM to say “yes” or “no” to go to the ICJ.

But what I don't like is that after the case has been done, we like to lament. I'm not in that frame of mind. I like to look forward. There's nothing to be gained by criticising what we did not do, what we ought to have done. The power-that-be at that time should have thought about that. I'm now actually cleaning the dishes after the meal.

We must gear up and say this (Batu Puteh) is gone, we'd like to see what we can do for Middle Rocks, which could be bigger than Batu Puteh if Malaysia knows how to play its role.

There is an ancient letter written by the British Governor to the Johor Temenggong and Sultan, seeking permission for Britain to build the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Batu Puteh, which could not be located. How damaging was this?

If we can gain sight of that letter, the gate can be opened again. There is a maximum 10-year grace period for us to seek a judicial review of the case if we can get new evidence, but preferably it should be done within six years.

The letter could be in London. We have searched with them but it has not been conclusively proven that they don’t have it.

Probably it is in Singapore. That would be a double jeopardy. I have directed Wisma Putra to renew the search for the letter.

What impact would the letter have on the case if retrieved?

I can only anticipate that it would show sovereignty of the island never ceased to be Johor's despite the fact that the Horsburgh Lighthouse was built. But of course when you introduce (new) evidence, there could be other strong, compelling reasons under international law to rebut it.

Which means although we find the letter, it might cease to be of operation if we are shown not to have been operating in the island for 100 years. It could be that way too. Of course, we'll have to notify Singapore of any new evidence. This is in the rules of the game.

What could we do with Middle Rocks and South Ledge if we get that, too?

We must regard the rocks as gems, because international law will give us territorial rights. We can erect something notable like a research post and let fishermen go there.

You head the technical committee for Malaysia to determine the South Ledge issue. What will you propose?

Actually, my idea is to propose to Singapore to let fishermen from both countries have access to the entire area. That would be the humane thing to do. Indonesian fishermen should also be allowed in as South Ledge is southward looking. This has never been proposed. But of course, I don't mean trawler fishermen. I will visit the area with my Singapore counterpart George Yeo soon - The Star

No comments: