A good ruling, for both
Jessica Cheam
Sat, May 24, 2008
The Straits Times

Singaporeans are naturally pleased that the International Court of Justice has ruled that Pedra Branca 'belongs to the Republic of Singapore'. They would have preferred if the ICJ had ruled the Middle Rocks belonged to Singapore too, but Pedra Branca was always the main issue in dispute. The confirmation that it is Singapore's means that its strategic and maritime import will remain unchanged.

The chief significance of the ICJ ruling, however, is that both Singapore and Malaysia had agreed to submit this dispute to the court - and abide by its decision. Not a single shot was fired in resolving this territorial dispute; it did not occasion an irretrievable breakdown in relations; dealings, exchanges and talks on a whole host of other matters did not screech to a halt because of this one dispute. Both countries submitted their legal arguments to an independent arbitrator and agreed to abide by the dictates of international law.

Upholding international law is crucial for small states. Both Malaysia and Singapore are small. Malaysia is less tiny than Singapore, but it too is small in the larger scheme of things. If there is no respect for international law, Malaysia would not have been able to go to the ICJ to settle its dispute with Indonesia over Sipadan and Ligatan islands. The ICJ ruled in Malaysia's favour in that instance. If international law had no standing, Malaysia would have been 'crushed' at its inception, as Sukarno intended it should. Malaysia survived and Sukarno fell from power. The existence of small states depends crucially on respect for international law. Since they don't have might on their side, they must lean on right.

That, among other reasons, is why Singapore and Malaysian leaders agreed to submit this dispute to the ICJ. There were risks in doing so. Politically, it would have been easier for both if they had stood pat and continued quarrelling. Politicians on either side of the Causeway could have garnered votes that way. Instead, the two governments, over four premierships - Tun Mahathir Mohamad's and Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi's in Malaysia's case, and Mr Goh Chok Tong's and Mr Lee Hsien Loong's in Singapore's - agreed to submit this dispute to the ICJ. In doing so, they upheld international law, secured the long-term interests of small states and showed the way to the rest of Asean.

Asean cannot become a community unless it becomes rules-based and develops mechanisms to settle disputes. As the two most economically advanced states in the grouping, Malaysia and Singapore have shown others how mature states settle their differences. Singapore retained a strategic islet; Malaysia gained rocks; both upheld the law.

Related links:

The decision
» ICJ's judgment
» Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore
» 1953 Johor letter 'hands' over to Singapore
» Three reasons why island went to Singapore
» Court leaves sovereignty over South Ledge open

» PM Lee's comments on ICJ ruling
» PM Abdullah: Decision based on hard facts, evidence
» A good ruling, for both
» Community accepts decision

» Pulau Batu Puteh: Past, present and future
» Loss a big blow for fishermen
» Malaysians can now go fishing off Middle Rocks
» Expert: Natural resources in territorial waters now Singapore's


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