If one is to take a survey of the state of bilateral relations existing between Singapore and Malaysia, one will no doubt recognise that there exists perhaps a whole litany of long-standing and contentious issues, ranging from the issue of water supply to the issue of military airspace, between the two neighbouring countries. And of these contentious issues, one particular issue has recently been placed in the media and public spotlight. This would be the issue of the competing claims by both countries over the sovereignty of Pedra Branca or, as the Malaysian side calls it, Pulau Batu Puteh, which consists of a “granite island the size of a football field, located some 25 nautical miles from Singapore's mainland” and the nearby South Ledge and Middle Rocks.
What are the motivating factors behind Singapore’s desire to contest the claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca with Malaysia? Has this contest affected bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia? If it has, how? And how would this issue affect bilateral relations between these two countries in the near future? These would be the questions that this essay would attempt to discuss and hopefully provide answers to.
However, before this essay moves on to discuss and examine the abovementioned questions, it would be necessary, if we are to have a proper and full understanding of the entire issue at hand, to first take a brief look at the historical context in which the Pedra Branca sovereignty issue arose out of.
Bearing the above in mind, it can be observed that the issue of the sovereignty of Pedra Branca perhaps first arose in 1979. It was in this year that Malaysia published a map that showed Pedra Branca as being within its sovereign jurisdiction. In response to this, Singapore, which claims to have exercised sovereignty over Pedra Branca since 1847, lodged a formal protest with Malaysia against this unilateral move initiated by the latter in early 1980. Later, in 1994, it was decided by both countries, acting on Singapore’s initial suggestion in 1989, that the issue of to which country the sovereignty of Pedra Branca should rightly belong to should be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). And by 1998, the two countries agreed upon a Special Agreement, necessary for the submission of the issue to the ICJ, which was later signed in 2003. Five months after the signing of the Special Agreement, the ICJ was formally notified about the submission of the issue to it.
The case was then heard by the ICJ from 6th November to 23rd November 2007 in The Hague. During the hearings, the legal teams representing both Singapore and Malaysia respectively presented their cases to the court and rebutted the other teams’ arguments. As was mentioned above, the hearings concluded on 23rd November 2007 and judgment on the case is expected to be provided by the ICJ by September 2008.
Now, having briefly introduced the origins and development of the Pedra Branca sovereignty issue, this essay would move on to discuss and examine the possible reasons that could have motivated Singapore to contest the claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca with Malaysia.
Evidently, one main reason, frequently expressed by the Singapore establishment and mainstream media, which perhaps motivated Singapore to contest the claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca with Malaysia would be that Singapore perceives this issue as being one of safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and integrity. Here, it should be noted that since its independence in 1965, one main, if not the most important, principle and goal of Singapore’s foreign policy would be the safeguarding of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In fact, it would not be an overstatement to say that Singapore has and will most probably continue to jealously guard both its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
And linked with what have been discussed in the preceding paragraph, it may also be observed that Singapore is perhaps concerned with the prospect of setting a precedent for Malaysia if it, without protest, allowed the latter to unilaterally alter its maritime boundaries. Such a precedent, if allowed to be made, would perhaps prove greatly disadvantageous to Singapore in its future dealings with not only Malaysia but also with its neighbour to the south, i.e. Indonesia, if and when the issue of ambiguous maritime boundaries should crop up between Singapore and these two countries.
In addition, another possible reason behind Singapore’s decision to contest the claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca would be the strategic value that Pedra Branca holds. This is considering that despite its small size, Pedra Branca’s strategic location allows it to command “the entrance to the two main shipping channels - the south and middle channels - of the eastern part of the Strait (of Singapore), through which some 900 ships pass each day”. It should also be noted that Pedra Branca’s strategic value is further enhanced by the fact that it not only houses the Horsburgh Lighthouse but also a Vessel Traffic Information System tower, installed by Singapore. Both these structures are essential in the management of shipping traffic in the region. Hence, it may be observed that Singapore, besides being motivated by its desire to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and integrity, was also motivated by the strategic value of Pedra Branca to decide to contest the claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca with Malaysia.
Furthermore, it may also be observed that there has been speculation that another reason behind Singapore’s decision to contest the claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca was that if it successfully defended its claim over Pedra Branca, Singapore would not only have control over Pedra Branca but also the oceanic territory surrounding it. In other words, it has been speculated that by having control over Pedra Branca, Singapore would be able to expand its Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) into a potentially resource-rich region.
However, it should be noted that this remains only as speculation and it is uncertain whether Singapore could indeed expand its EEZ through its claim over Pedra Branca. Nonetheless, it is a plausible motivation, other than the oft-cited reason of Singapore wanting to safeguard its territorial integrity, for Singapore to decide to contest with Malaysia the claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca.
Moving on, this essay would now look at whether the contestation between Singapore and Malaysia for the sovereignty over Pedra Branca has affected the bilateral relations between these two countries.
It can be clearly observed that this contestation has negatively impacted upon relations between Singapore and Malaysia, which were already not problems-free even before the issue of Pedra Branca’s sovereignty emerged. This is considering that following the emergence of the contestation over Pedra Branca’s sovereignty, tensions between both countries perhaps increased. Specifically, there have been several incidents, occurring in the waters near Pedra Branca, in which Singapore and Malaysia confronted one another. One example of this occurred in 1989 when “Malaysian marine police boats conducted provocative acts in the waters of Pedra Branca”.
Indeed, it has been admitted by the government leaders from both sides of the contestation that it has impeded progress, if not causing a retrogression, in bilateral relations. Specifically, it was said by both Professor S. Jayakumar, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore and who has been the foreign minister of Singapore from 1994 to 2004, and Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Syed Jaafar Albar, who has been Malaysia’s foreign minister until recently, that the Pedra Branca issue has been an “irritant” in the bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia.
Also, it may be observed that the exchanging of sharp words by both of the legal teams representing Singapore and Malaysia during the court case at the ICJ perhaps did not help to reduce the strain in the relations between the two countries. Here, it can be noted that while the Malaysian side accused Singapore of attempting to “subvert” the status quo in the Strait of Singapore through its claim to control Pedra Branca and tried to portray it as an expansionist state, Singapore’s legal team made remarks about how the Malaysian legal team’s arguments were akin to “shooting blanks” and that the latter distorted quotes to bolster its arguments.
Looking ahead into the future, what possible impact on Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations can one expect the ICJ judgment later this year on the sovereignty of Pedra Branca to have?
Evidently, the answer to the abovementioned question would be largely dependent on two main factors. One, the type of judgment that the ICJ provides later this year. To which country would the ICJ grant Pedra Branca’s sovereignty to: Singapore or Malaysia? Or would the ICJ decide to grant sovereignty over the main island of Pedra Branca to one country and control over the South Ledge and Middle Rocks to the other country involved in the contestation? And, two, the reaction from both countries with regards to whatever judgment the ICJ provides later this year.
Let us first examine the scenario of the ICJ deciding to grant sovereignty over the entire Pedra Branca to Singapore and what sort of impact this could possibly have on Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations.
Undoubtedly, such a judgment as mentioned above would not entirely please Malaysia. However, the more important question would be: would Malaysia, despite its displeasure at such a possible judgment, nonetheless accept it and not react in such a way which could potentially adversely affect its relations with Singapore?
Although one may perhaps be sceptical of the sincerity of his statements, it can be observed that Datuk Seri Syed Hamid, then foreign minister of Malaysia, has made statements stating that Malaysia would accept whatever judgment the ICJ provides and that the judgment, whatever it may be, would not adversely affect the long-term bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia.
However, it may be disputed that even though the Malaysian authorities may not react negatively towards an ICJ judgment in Singapore’s favour, the Malaysian people may still perhaps react negatively towards such a judgment and result in the deterioration of Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations.
Yet, while it is a possibility that the Malaysian people may react negatively towards an ICJ judgment which grants sovereignty of Pedra Branca to Singapore, the probability of this is perhaps quite low. This is considering that the Pedra Branca sovereignty issue is an issue which the Malaysian people are perhaps not that concerned about. In fact, it can be observed that during Malaysia’s most recent General Elections earlier this year, there was little, if not none at all, mention of the Pedra Branca sovereignty issue during the campaigning period, thus further suggesting that this issue is not one which the Malaysian people pay much attention to.
In addition, it may be observed that, considering the state of political flux that Malaysia is in after its most recent General Elections, it is quite probable that Malaysia would perhaps focus more on its own internal issues than on the Pedra Branca sovereignty issue.
Hence, it can be seen that although there is the possibility that an ICJ judgment in Singapore’s favour could perhaps adversely affect Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations, the probability of this happening is perhaps quite low. And even if there is an adverse effect, such an effect would most probably be only in the short-term and not stretch into the long-term.
Moving on, let us next look at the scenario of the ICJ judgment later this year being in Malaysia’s favour and what impact this could potentially have on the bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia.
It may be observed that if the ICJ judgment is in Malaysia’s favour, the probability of Singapore reacting negatively towards such a judgment would perhaps be quite low. This is considering that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has clearly stated that should the judgment be in Malaysia’s favour, Singapore would accept such a judgment. Also, it can be seen that even though there are Singaporeans who have expressed “staunch support” for the “legal battle to keep Pedra Branca”, there are also those, who perhaps are in the majority, whom have perceived the issue as “much ado about nothing”. And even if there was any popular and negative reaction amongst Singaporeans against an ICJ judgment that is in Malaysia’s favour, it is highly likely that, considering the strict controls that the Singaporean authorities have on popular civic expression, any such negative reaction would be moderated, if not prevented even before it materialises.
Yet, that said, it cannot be denied that there remains the possibility that should the ICJ judgment be in Malaysia’s favour, Malaysia may perhaps become more assertive in its bilateral dealings with Singapore, thus placing Singapore in a disadvantageous position in its future dealings with Malaysia.
And as for the perhaps unlikely scenario of the ICJ granting sovereignty over the main island of Pedra Branca to either Singapore or Malaysia while giving control over the nearby Middle Rocks and South Ledge to the other side, it can be observed that although this may appears to be a most equitable outcome for both sides, it perhaps is the worst scenario compared to the two already discussed above. This is considering that such a scenario would mean that the Pedra Branca sovereignty issue will not be considered as fully resolved. Also, with such a scenario, it may mean that the possibility of future confrontations between both countries in the Pedra Branca region would most likely escalate, considering that naval boats and other vessels from both sides would be operating, in close proximity, in the same region.
Hence, should the ICJ decide to split control over the Pedra Branca region between Singapore and Malaysia, the issue would continue to remain as an “irritant” in Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations.
Thus, with the above discussion in mind, it can be seen that regardless of whatever short-term adverse impact an ICJ judgment in favour of either Singapore or Malaysia may perhaps have on Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations, such impact would be outweighed by the long-term benefit of having a long-standing and contentious bilateral issue being finally resolved. Indeed, it can be observed that following the ICJ’s judgment over an earlier dispute between Singapore and Malaysia in 2005, both sides were then able to move on to other bilateral issues and progress, albeit perhaps little, was made in Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations.
 Nathan 2002
 ST 2007
 MFA 2007
 Wong 2007
 Singh 1999
 UNCLOS 1994
 Singh 2003
 Government of Singapore 2006
 Hong 2007 and Wong 2007
 Hong 2007 and Wong 2007
 Chow 2007
 Lee 2007
 Lim 2005
“Background on Pedra Branca”. 2007. Channel News Asia. 6 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Chow Kum Hor. 2007. “Few Malaysians avidly following Pedra Branca case”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 1 December. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Hong, Carolyn. 2007. “Dispute should not hurt ties: Syed Hamid”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 10 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008
“International Court of Justice Public Hearings on the Case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge, from 6 to 23 November 2007”. 2007. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Lee, Lynn. 2007. “PM: Bilateral issues best settled by international law”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 12 August. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Lim, Lydia. 2005. “All’s well that ends well”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 29 April. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Lim, Lydia. 2007. “KL accuses S’pore of trying to ‘subvert’ status quo”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 14 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Lim, Lydia. 2007. “Lawyers for Singapore liken KL’s case to shooting blanks”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 8 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Lim, Lydia. 2007. “S’pore highlights KL’s tactics of distorting quotes”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 9 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Lim, Lydia. 2007. “Why Singapore is fighting the case to keep Pedra Branca”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 13 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Lim, Lydia. 2007. “Win, lose or draw over Pedra Branca?”. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 1 December. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Nathan, K.S. 2002. “Malaysia-Singapore Relations: Retrospect and Prospect”. Contemporary Southeast Asia. Vol. 24, No.2. August 2002. Pages 396-404.
“The Cabinet – Prof S Jayakumar”. 2006. Government of Singapore. May 2006. Date of access: 22/3/2008
Singh, Bilveer. 1999. “The Vulnerability of Small States Revisited: A Study of Singapore’s Post-Cold War Foreign Policy”. Gadjah Mada University Press. Yogyakarta. Chapter 2. Pages 24- 35
Singh, Bilveer. 2003. “Arming the Singapore Armed Forces: Trends and Implications”. Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence. No. 153. Australian National University. Canberra. Page 25-26
“United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea”. 1994. United Nations. Part V: Exclusive Economic Zone. Date of access: 19/3/2008
“What the case is about”. 2007. Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva. 25 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008
Wong, May. 2007. “Judgment on Pedra Branca expected by next September”. Channel News Asia. 24 November. Date of access: 16/3/2008