Whenever Pedra Branca (or White Rocks in Portuguese) is mentioned, two things come to mind: a small island of rocks, no larger than a football field, so named because it’s white from being covered in bird droppings; and a territorial dispute between neighbouring frenemies Malaysia and Singapore.
1. How long has Singapore and Malaysia been fighting over these ‘White Rocks’?
Well, the media didn’t call it a longstanding dispute for nothing…… it’s been 38 years, longer than some of us have been alive.
It all started in 1979. The year Pink Floyd released “The Wall”, Talking Heads released “Fear of Music”, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and George Miller’s “Max Max” were made. US and China established diplomatic relations. The Islamic Revolution in Iran took place (leading to the siege of the US embassy if you watched Ben Affleck’s “Argo”). And of course, Deng Xiaoping made the pivotal decision to undertake economic reforms….leading to the China that we know today.
What. A. Year. Okay, I got distracted…..
It all started on 21 December 1979, when Malaysia claimed Pedra Branca/Batu Puteh/ பெட்ரா பிராங்கா/白礁 as its own. Naturally, Singapore disagreed.
And the rest is history.
2. ICJ is the judicial branch of the United Nations (UN). And indeed, the UN court ruled in 2008 that the isle belongs to Singapore.
Under ICJ’s statutes, its rulings cannot be appealed. BUT the judgments can be revised. HOWEVER, this is subjected to a strict criteria. How strict is strict you ask? Looking at precedence, in the entire history of the ICJ, there have only been three cases where there were legal bids for revision of judgment…….and all of them were found to be inadmissible.
So no ICJ ruling has ever been revised to date. Will Pedra Branca be the first?
In February this year, Malaysia announced that it has uncovered three pieces of declassified archival British documents that would offer definitive proof that Pedra Branca belongs to them and overturn the ICJ’s decision.
3. What ‘new evidence’ is Malaysia referring to? Sure or not? Or just chut pattern?
Evidence no. 1: A 1958 confidential telegram from Governor of Singapore to British secretary of state for the colonies, proposing the establishment of an international high seas corridor one mile from Pedra Branca.
Evidence no. 2: A 1958 naval incident report that stated that the British navy was unable to assist a Malaysian vessel being followed by an Indonesian gunboat near Pedra Branca as it “was still inside Johor territorial waters”
Evidence no. 3： A single map from 1962 (with handwritten annotations from 1966) that according to Malaysia, depicted Pedra Branca as outside Singapore’s territorial waters.
Sounds vaguely compelling?
Considering the fact that the 2008 ruling hinged strongly on the fact that the Johor Acting State Secretary had written a letter to Singapore’s Colonial Secretary that stated explicitly “the Johor government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca” — suddenly these three new pieces of “evidence” look very circumstantial, inferential, deductive, and conjectural.
But don’t just take my word for it. Singapore will submit its rebuttal to Malaysia’s application on 14 June. Let’s wait for the legal experts to give their word.
4. If the case is not strong, then why go and waste time to bring to court again?
Not that I know anything about anything, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say it’s part of the wayang to stir up nationalist sentiments ahead of Malaysia’s general election. Afterall, pointing your fingers at external ‘problems’ is the best way to distract the populace from domestic ones. Throw in some beating of chest and defending of national territory, and suddenly you’re the bastion of patriotism. And guess which country is the most convenient punching bag?