Islet Disputes: Malaysia’s Royal Commission to Examine Singapore Strait Dispute Cases

On Wednesday, the Malaysian cabinet announced the establishment of a royal commission of inquiry to investigate the management of cases related to three disputed islets in the Singapore Strait. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, advocating for a reassessment, has specifically highlighted the 2018 decision made during the administration of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. This decision involved Malaysia withdrawing its application to revise an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that affirmed Singapore’s sovereignty over Pedra Branca, one of the contested islets.

The protracted disputes between Malaysia and Singapore over small islets concluded with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarding Malaysia the Middle Rocks formation and designating nearby Pedra Branca, also known as Pulau Batu Puteh by Malaysia, to Singapore. In an attempt to overturn the Pedra Branca aspect of the ruling in 2017, Malaysia withdrew its claim a year later during Mahathir’s premiership.

Last year, Malaysia’s Attorney-General Idris Harun expressed the government’s belief that the 2018 decision to withdraw two ICJ applications regarding the sovereignty of Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge was “not in order and improper,” without providing further details. Ongoing scrutiny of task force recommendations, including matters related to the “tort of misfeasance in public office” — a form of misconduct by a public official causing harm or loss to a third party — suggests that appropriate actions will align with the Cabinet’s decision.

According to the Tuesday announcement by Chief Secretary to the Government Mohd Zuki Ali, the approval of the king of Malaysia is required for the cabinet’s decision. The envisioned panel aims to conduct an open, equitable, and unbiased investigation by including specialists with extensive expertise in judicial, legal, and public administration matters.

Pedra Branca, the easternmost point of Singapore, is an outlying island named for the whitish guano adorning its rock surfaces. With dimensions of approximately 8,560 square meters during low tide, this small granite outcrop extends up to 137 meters in length and maintains an average width of 60 meters. Situated about 14 km off the southern coast of Malaysia and 44 km off the east coast of Singapore, Pedra Branca is characterized by a chain of rocky outcrops.

Adjacent to Pedra Branca are two maritime features. Middle Rocks, under Malaysia’s sovereignty, comprises two clusters of small rocks located approximately 250 meters apart, situated 1.1 km south of Pedra Branca. South Ledge, positioned 4.1 km to the south-southwest of Pedra Branca, manifests as a rock formation visible only during low tide.

The issue between Singapore and Malaysia regarding Pedra Branca began on December 21, 1979, when Malaysia published a map asserting the island’s inclusion within its territorial waters. This marked the onset of a over 25-year territorial dispute, encompassing matters of sovereignty over the neighboring maritime features of Middle Rocks and South Ledge. The disputing parties subsequently brought this complex issue before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for resolution.

On May 23, 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) unequivocally declared Pedra Branca as falling under the sovereignty of Singapore. The ICJ acknowledgment also took note of Singapore’s proposed reclamation plans for Pedra Branca. Despite the island’s initial association with the Johor Sultanate’s sovereignty, both the United Kingdom and Singapore had undertaken acts of sovereignty concerning Pedra Branca. The lack of response from Malaysia and its predecessors to these actions, coupled with other indications recognizing Singapore’s sovereignty, led to the conclusion that Singapore had acquired sovereignty over Pedra Branca.

In contrast, Middle Rocks retained its status as part of Malaysian territory, given Singapore’s absence of demonstrated acts of sovereignty over it. The ICJ refrained from providing a definitive ruling on South Ledge, specifying that its ownership pertains to the state within whose territorial waters it is located. To address the complex territorial matters surrounding Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge, Malaysia and Singapore established the Joint Technical Committee. This committee is tasked with delineating the maritime boundary in the Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks area and determining the ownership status of South Ledge.

In 2017, Malaysia sought to overturn the ICJ ruling concerning Pedra Branca but abandoned its claim a year later during Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister. On February 1, 2019, Pedra Branca was incorporated into East Coast GRC for representation in the Parliament of Singapore.

Given the profound interdependence and extensive collaboration between the two nations, there will be no escalation with cases. Following the Court’s definitive decision, both Singapore and Malaysia made public declarations of acceptance and commitment to abide by the Court’s ruling. It is evident that the focus of this movement is directed towards Malaysian politics and the government under Mahathir’s leadership. The involvement of Singapore in this context seems unlikely. However, considering China’s expanding presence in the South China Sea and its strategic importance, every rock in the region now holds significance.