Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Let's not lose any more territory


WE lost Batu Puteh. On May 23 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled and granted the island, now called Pedra Branca, irrefutably to Singapore.

Middle Rocks, however, was given to Malaysia with the question of ownership of the South Ledge being left to the two countries to decide, presumably when the territorial waters of both countries are finally determined.

Most Malaysians seemed to have taken the court's ruling calmly although many could not honestly say that they were not sad or angry about the loss.

We made the claim convinced that the island belonged to us only to be denied by a court ruling which was influenced by arguments unfavourable to us and which we were not able to counter convincingly.

The island was, all along, the primary physical item of dispute and, therefore, losing it meant we won nothing.

The ICJ ruling will result in changes to the two countries' outermost points, baselines, territorial waters and, unavoidably, the extent of their exclusive economic zones.

Whether these and the boundary delineation activities to be carried out will turn out to be sources of further disagreements and disputes remain to be seen.

Even the immediate determination of all these matters, which has begun, will not be easy.

The close proximity of Middle Rocks and South Ledge to Pedra Branca and the resultant overlapping claim of territorial waters and economic zones are likely to complicate the exercise.

The court's decision and future agreements between Malaysia and Singapore relating to the matter will definitely have unique strategic implications for both countries.

Exactly what these might be would be more clearly seen after the international boundary lines, the extent of each other's waters and airspace are finalised and agreed upon.

In the meantime, one can only raise questions and dabble in conjecture. Will the boundary line in the Straits of Johor shift? This may happen and, if so, will affect the approaches and routes of ships and crafts entering and leaving the straits, particularly to and from Pasir Gudang. The shift may also impact the economic activities and sailing patterns of citizens of both countries in the straits.

It is not inconceivable that both countries will begin to intensify development and other economic activities in the area to strengthen their hold and exploit whatever resources and opportunities available within the area.

Pedra Branca could be enlarged and Middle Rocks filled in to become an island to serve any purpose such as fishing and even for the purpose of defence.

These activities would unavoidably raise the concerns of both countries, particularly if they were to affect their economic, environmental and national security situations adversely.

Friction could also arise, especially between the navies, air forces, fishing fleets and maritime agencies of both countries, in the economic zones and territorial waters.

These are situations that have occurred between other countries and will have to be handled very carefully should they occur here.

Also, the surveillance and monitoring systems currently on the island could be further enhanced to meet the needs of Singapore's defence and improve its monitoring and control of the sea approaches into the straits as well as monitoring of the waters opposite Johor's east coast and beyond.

There is every possibility, even, of increased military presence and activity by both countries in the area.

The urgent call now is to ensure that the fate that befell Pedra Branca should never happen again, especially with the other islands that are clearly Malaysia's and with those that are subjects of dispute with countries in the region.

What we failed to do on Pedra Branca we must not fail to do on the others.

In this regard, the Singapore-operated lighthouse on Pulau Pisang has been brought to the attention of the government and public by a politician from Johor. Many have asked that it be taken over by Malaysia.

We can understand the emotions. But the case of the lighthouse on Pulau Pisang is different from Pedra Branca.

Pulau Pisang and the two islands close to it happen to be clearly Johor's but the agreement with the British long ago was for the lighthouse to be there for as long as ships pass through the Straits of Malacca.

That is the incredible catch and a commitment that does sound like "forever", no matter how one looks at it.

Hopefully, what happened in the case of Pedra Branca will be a lesson to all and remembering the outcome will not be too painful as time goes by.

Although the island is now gone from us I do not believe that it should be allowed to slip away from the memory without so much as a goodbye from all of us. It is the least that we can do for it even if it is done from afar.

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