Malaysia reopens Pedra Branca island row with Singapore after a decade

Kuala Lumpur says new documents have been discovered in British archives backing its territorial claim to the islet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 10:15pm

Malaysia on Friday reopened a decades-old dispute with Singapore calling on the UN’s top court to overturn a 2008 ruling granting its neighbour sovereignty over a tiny but strategic island.

In a filing to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Kuala Lumpur maintained new documents had been discovered in British archives backing its territorial claim to the islet.

For several decades, Malaysia had laid claim to the island it knows as Pulau Batu Puteh, while Singapore, which calls it Pedra Branca, argued sovereignty had passed to it tacitly.

In response, Singapore Foreign Ministry said in a statement that is has formed a legal team to study Malaysia’s application to the world court in The Hague.

Malaysia’s Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali said in a statement that an application was filed on Thursday against the ICJ’s decision on May 23, 2008 to grant Singapore sovereignty over Pedra Branca or Batu Puteh as it is known in Malaysia.

The application was made “upon the discovery of some fact of such nature as to be a decisive factor, which fact was, when the judgment was given, unknown to the court and also to Malaysia as the party claiming revision”, Apandi said.

He added that Malaysia’s move was within the statute of limitation set by the ICJ that is an appeal can be brought within six months of the discovery of a new fact and within ten years of the date of judgment.

Malaysia and Singapore decided to resolve its nearly three-decade-old wrangling over Pedra Branca, which is about half the size of a football field, and two other even smaller islets, Middle Rocks and South Ledge to the ICJ in 2003.

The chain of rocky outcrops is located about 7.7 nautical miles (14km) off the coast of southern Malaysia and 24 nautical miles off the east coast of Singapore.

The court awarded Middle Rocks to Malaysia and South Ledge to the country in the territorial waters of which it is located.

In its decision on Pedra Branca, the court said although Malaysia’s ancient Sultanate of Johor had original ownership over the island, the government has failed to respond to the conduct of Singapore when the city-state asserted its sovereignty over the tiny outcrop such as when it installed military communication equipment on the tiny outcrop in 1977.

By the time the dispute emerged in the 1980s after Malaysia published a map claiming Pedra Branca belonged to it, “sovereignty ... had passed to Singapore”, the ICJ said in its judgment.

The island is of strategic importance to Singapore which operates one of the world’s busiest ports because it is situated at the eastern entrance of the Straits of Singapore, which is joined to the Malacca Straits, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Kuala Lumpur maintained these documents showed that “officials at the highest levels in the British colonial and Singaporean administration appreciated that Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh did not form part of Singapore’s sovereign territory,” the ICJ said in a statement.

Under the court’s rules, states can ask for a judgement to be revised if new facts come to light within 10 years of the first ruling.

The ICJ will now have to decide whether the case can proceed.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse