January 25, 2024
SINGAPORE – Malaysia is setting up a Royal Commission of Inquiry to look into how the government handled the review of an international court’s ruling on three disputed islets including Pedra Branca, a government statement said on Jan 24.
“The Cabinet has agreed to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry to study the handling of cases related to Batu Puteh, Batuan Tengah and Tubir Selatan,” said the Chief Secretary to the Government, Tan Sri Mohd Zuki Ali.
Malaysia uses Malay names to refer to Pedra Branca (Batu Puteh) and the two maritime outcrops – Middle Rocks (Batuan Tengah) and South Ledge (Tubir Selatan).
The decisions were made by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he became prime minister after the 2018 polls.
Mr Zuki said Malaysia’s King will approve the members of the commission, who will be chosen for their expertise in judicial, legal and public administration matters, and “who can carry out a transparent, fair and equal investigation”.
Pedra Branca is located at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait, about 24 nautical miles east of Singapore. To its south are Middle Rocks and South Ledge.
In 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore, after both countries took the territorial dispute to the court.
The ICJ also decided that sovereignty over Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia, and sovereignty over South Ledge belonged to the state in the territorial waters in which it is located.
Malaysia and Singapore have set up a joint technical committee to draw the maritime boundary around Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks, and to determine the ownership of South Ledge.
Both countries said in 2008 that they would accept and abide by the court’s decision, which is final.
However, Malaysia in 2017, under then Premier Najib Razak, started an application for revision of the ICJ’s 2008 decision, citing new evidence that it had. A hearing was subsequently set for June 2018.
But Dr Mahathir decided in May 2018 to abandon the proceedings.
Under the ICJ statute, an application for revision cannot be made more than 10 years after the court’s judgment on May 23, 2008.
In December 2022, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim instructed then Attorney-General Idrus Harun to review matters pertaining to claims over Pedra Branca, which he said would allow negotiations with Singapore over the island to be more fruitful.
In January 2023, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said it was studying the recommendations made by a special task force the government had set up previously.
“Issues relating to Batu Puteh are of vital importance as it relates to strategic interests and sovereignty of the nation. In this regard, the government will continue to ensure that Malaysia’s interest and sovereignty are protected and preserved at all times,” Tan Sri Idrus said then.
Senior constitutional lawyer Rajan Navaratnam said the royal commission is expected to investigate the basis of the withdrawal of the appeal by the Mahathir-led government.
“The Anwar Ibrahim-led government cannot challenge the ICJ ruling as it was withdrawn previously,” he told The Straits Times.
The British colonial government took possession of Pedra Branca to build Horsburgh Lighthouse between 1847 and 1851 and other structures, and since that time, Singapore has exercised continuous sovereignty over the island and its adjacent waters.