When the judges gathered at the World Court in The Hague last week and decided that two small islands belonged to Malaysia, their decision-making process was widely applauded. Both Malaysia and Indonesia were praised for submitting to international judgment their rival claims to the islands of Sipadan and Ligitan. Later, Malaysia celebrated quietly. Indonesia formally accepted the ruling with good grace. The World Court said, in effect, that the empires of old maps were dead. What matters is the here and now. This key point has not yet drawn wide comment in the region. The judges threw out all the arguments for ownership based on old treaties between rival European and later American powers, implying they were unhelpful. More telling, they ruled, was what governments had done with the territories since independence. It is an obvious point, perhaps, but imagine the implications. The ruling put an end to a curious situation in which two proudly post-colonial countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, were trying to use colonial treaties to support a claim to two islands in the name of independent national pride - and the creation of wealth. After they slipped off the colonial yoke, neither country indicated ownership of the islands on their maps - until the prospect of undersea wealth became a matter of lingering dispute in 1969. The worth of colonial maps and of national pride could be debated again in several niggling border disputes that exist between almost all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The small island of Pedro Branca - also known as Batu Puteh - between Singapore and Malaysia is next up before the court; and many tiny atolls across the South China Sea remain in wide-ranging dispute. If the court follows its own precedent, Pedro Branca could go to Singapore, which maintains the lighthouse there, rather than to Malaysia, which will try to use colonial treaties to support its claim. But if imperial maps are dead, what of the Spratly Islands? Settlement by an international court requires all parties to accept the ruling - which is why few diplomats expect the model to apply to the ancient contest over the Spratlys, where claimants extend beyond Southeast Asia to the mainland and Taiwan. Ideas about empire may not be as dead as some would like to think. And the jurists' ruling implies that the secret of success lies more in how a state expresses its sovereign responsibilities than in vague lines drawn in the sands of time.