Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Pedra Branca is Useless

Written by johnleemk on 6:52:31 am May 25, 2008.

Pulau Batu Putih. Pedra Branca. Much ado about nothing. The government's official position is that the International Court of Justice ruling is a "win-win" for both Malaysia and Singapore. This is hardly true. But at the same time, those acting as if the sky will fall and calling this a black day in Malaysian history and a victory for colonialism are blowing this far out of proportion. Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge are hardly the worst problems we have on our hands at the moment. I think our 27 million people have more to worry about than the fate of some rocks where nobody even lives.

Our Foreign Minister, Rais Yatim, said that the ICJ decision to award Pedra Branca to Singapore and Middle Rocks to Malaysia was a victory for both sides — it's hogwash. Before the decision, nobody could care less about Middle Rocks or South Ledge. The only reason we talk about them now is to save face. The true victory from a legal standpoint is that the ICJ rejected Singapore's contention that Pedra Branca belonged to nobody before the British administration of Singapore took control of the island in the 19th century. If you ask me, that is our victory, though it remains considerably hollow.

Our failure lay in our inability to prove that the 1953 letter from a Johor official to a Singaporean official about the status of Pedra Branca did not give up our sovereignty over the island. Maybe there wasn't a strong legal case to be made here; I don't know enough to say. In any event, that is the reason we "lost" Pedra Branca (strictly speaking, the legal position is that we have not had Pedra Branca since 1953).

It may be obvious that the government spin is bullshit — we have in a very real sense lost the case, considering our position was that Pedra Branca has always been a part of Malaysia — but there is even more nonsense coming from the side making a mountain out of this molehill. There are people saying that this decision is an immense loss for our country, a black mark in our history. They don't have much of a case, but let's look at it anyway. The best example of such hyperbole can perhaps be found in this blog post, which incorporates an Utusan Malaysia editorial, an essay by Matthias Chang, and of course some statements from the blogger himself.

The easiest place to start is the weak attempt to play on anti-semitic sentiment, which can easily be dismissed as, in the words of one famous scientist, "not even wrong". Not one piece of evidence is presented to show how "Zionist Jews" had a role in this decision, or how "Zionist Jews" benefit from Singaporean control over Pedra Branca. It's perhaps a classic example of the unspoken adage in Malaysian politics that when in doubt, you blame the Jews.

I do not know enough to offer a substantial comment about the next prominent allegation — that we selected an incompetent team of advocates, relative to the team we could have appointed. It is rather interesting, though, that Chang seems as concerned about bashing the Bar Council (for no immediately discernible reason) as he is about criticising the decision not to appoint top judges to the legal team.

Chang's claim that he had damning proof which could have swayed the tide seems less convincing, however. I don't think anyone with a decently long memory can have forgotten that document he alludes to — the letter from Lee Kuan Yew on which documents are binding and which aren't when it comes to Malaysia-Singapore relations. I believe they came up in connection with the water dispute some years back. The reason I am not convinced is simple: there is no proof that Lee's letter was meant to retroactively apply to the years before independence. There might be a case to be made that Lee's statement invalidates the letter of 1953, but Chang has not made it. Pedra Branca was not terra nullius when Lee wrote the letter; it belonged to either Malaysia or Singapore. If Malaysia had effectively conceded its claim on Pedra Branca to Singapore in 1953, it's hard to see how anyone could reverse that afterwards without in turn submitting a new agreement or memorandum to that effect.

Now, to the most interesting part: how momentous is this decision? Chang argues that it is of incredible import, imputing colonial motives to the ICJ and the British colonial administrators. Chang's argument hinges on the notion that we cannot accept the 1953 letter because it was part of the British colonial administration — it was a letter from one colonial official to another. I don't understand this argument — it's something that is again, not even wrong. If the British government of Malaya did not recognise Pedra Branca as part of it, regardless of the preceding history, that same British government could not grant independence to Pedra Branca as part of Malaya. For that to occur, the British administrators of Singapore would have to agree, which they obviously did not. You can argue all you like about the immorality of colonialism, and blow a lot of hot air about it, but ultimately, the British government gave away Pedra Branca. Deal with it. They gave away Singapore too, and they gave away Riau and some other parts of the Malay archipelago when they carved up the area with the Dutch in the 19th century. Screw the history, what's done is done — if the British really did sign it away, like they did with other regions previously governed by the Malay sultans, there's nothing to be done short of waging war on whoever controls these territories today. This of course upsets the irrational nationalists of Chang's ilk because they've never gotten over history; they still want to use colonialism as an excuse for their tantrums and tirades.

The blog post closes with Chang's attempt to tie Singapore's case to Zionism. This seems to me to perfectly sum up the piece in a nutshell: hyperbolic hysteria masquerading as informed criticism. Chang closes by arguing that the ICJ decision is founded in "Zionist fascist logic", as if this is the primary reason to reject the decision. I see no reason at all to tie the two together, except that in the paranoid mindset of people like Chang and his friend Mahathir, the only way something can be bad is if it involves the Jews or Israel. A convenient bogeyman.

The real import of the decision that Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore is simple: our fishermen will have a tougher time navigating our waters since Singapore now controls a decent portion of the sea in the area. Singapore gains a marginal economic advantage by eradicating the minor risk that Malaysia will reduce access to the ports of Singapore through control of its territorial waters. These are the only real consequences, and though they are to our loss, they are something we should be able to tolerate and work with. By any reasoning, they are not a major threat to our survival.

Some paranoid conspiracy theorists are convinced that this will give Singapore a decisive edge in any military conflict with Malaysia, citing their ability to jam Malaysian radio signals and make other mischief from an outpost on this island roughly 8 nautical miles from the Johor coast. True or not, I don't see a real reason to panic about this unless you actually intend to make war on Singapore. Why are we so frightened of this little city-state? Who had to implement national service because they faced the threat of military conquest by their neighbours, and who implemented a little 3-month summer camp program to inculcate national unity billed as national service? What next, are we going to tear down the Causeway because otherwise it will let Singaporean troops march into Johor almost unopposed? Are we going to deny Singaporean airplanes the right to fly in our airspace because they might use this to infiltrate us and cause other kinds of mischief? When does this paranoia ever end?

If you ask me, Malaysians are far too obsessed with petty and irrelevant things like Singapore. Singapore does not pose any threat to us unless we are stupid enough to get bamboozled by them, and that is a problem far better addressed by building ourselves up domestically rather than tearing down other countries. Pedra Branca is nothing of a problem in any manner when you compare it to some real crises we are going to face soon. Much like this recent obsession about the struggle for political power, the Pedra Branca incident is not much more than a distracting sideshow.

Here are some real problems that matter to us far more than some little uninhabited rock eight nautical miles away from any living Malaysians: our unsustainable economic policies. Our farce of a public education system. Our complete lack of any meaningful national identity. What relevance does this stupid rock have to Malaysians who don't feel they have a place in this country? What relevance does it have to a government budget which derives half its revenue from oil, devotes half its expenditure to subsidising oil-based fuels, and still runs a substantial deficit? What relevance does it have to Malaysian parents who send their children to schools where they do not learn a single bit of useful knowledge? Pedra Branca is useless to us. Far better that we give it up if it means we get to actually focus on problems that matter to us and our future. Argue all you like about our historical claim to Pedra Branca; I for one will put this pointless island behind me, and think about the kind of future I want for myself and 27 other million Malaysians.

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