The rocky dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over Batu Puteh


Free Malaysia Today
In 2008, the International Court of Justice ruled that Batu Puteh belonged to Singapore. (AFP pic)

PETALING JAYA: The controversy surrounding Batu Puteh can be traced back to 1979 when Malaysia published a map showing the small island within its territorial waters.

Situated about 14km south of Johor and 44km east of Singapore, Batu Puteh is made up of granite rocks and, at low tide, has a surface area of around 8,560 sq. metres, the approximate size of a football field.

There are two other maritime features south of Batu Puteh. Middle Rocks and South Ledge are located 1.1km and 4km from the island, respectively.

FMT takes a closer look at the history of the dispute

The dispute with Singapore

In a diplomatic note issued in 1980, Singapore formally rejected the Malaysian map and asserted its sovereignty over the rocky island, sparking a 28-year long dispute that was eventually referred to and adjudicated upon by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Nations generally identify and jealously guard their land and sea borders in the name of state sovereignty.

For example, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia all reject China’s maritime claim to a large portion of the South China Sea based on the superpower’s “nine-dash line” map.

Shahriman Lockman, senior researcher at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said Malaysia’s and Singapore’s competing claims over the Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge are also premised on both nations’ desire to secure maritime jurisdictional gains.

Free Malaysia Today
“The stakes can be high. Under the law of the sea, a ‘rock’ can generate 12 nautical miles of territorial sea while an island is entitled to a territorial sea plus up to 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” he told FMT.

The EEZ gives a coastal nation jurisdiction over both living and non-living resources within its limits, he added.

Shahriman suggested that the prolonged conflict could also have been due to the “baggage” left over following Singapore’s exit from Malaysia in 1965.

According to the foreign ministry, the two countries failed to resolve their dispute over Batu Puteh despite a series of intergovernmental talks held in 1993 and 1994.

For its part, the republic claimed to have been administering the island since the British colonial government built the Horsburgh Lighthouse there between 1850 and 1851.

Malaysia, on the other hand, argued that the outcrop has been in the Johor Sultanate’s possession “from time immemorial”, and that Singapore’s maintenance of the lighthouse could not displace Malaysia’s sovereignty over the island.

Malaysia also disputed the legitimacy of a letter written in 1953 by acting Johor secretary, Seth Said, in which he allegedly said that the state did not claim ownership of Batu Puteh. Seth had no authority to disclaim ownership of territories belonging to the state, Malaysia said.

With talks having failed, both countries agreed to refer the matter to the ICJ in 2003 for adjudication.

Five years later, the world court, based in The Hague, ruled that Batu Puteh belonged to Singapore, Middle Rocks to Malaysia, and South Ledge to the state in the territorial waters in which it is located.

Is Mahathir to blame for Batu Puteh’s loss?

At the time, then foreign minister Rais Yatim described the ICJ award as a “win-win” outcome for both countries.

However, his views were not shared by a number of local politicians. DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, for instance, expressed disappointment over the court’s decision, saying Malaysia “had won nothing, but lost Batu Puteh once and for all”.

Although the ICJ’s decision is final and not subject to appeal, court rules allow for a review application to be filed within 10 years of the award if new evidence becomes available.

In 2017, the Barisan Nasional government led by Najib Razak filed an application to review the court’s judgment, citing the availability of new evidence in the form of three documents.

However, following the 14th general election in 2018, the new Pakatan Harapan government with Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the helm withdrew the application before its scheduled hearing in June of that year.

The withdrawal was met with delight by Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, who was quoted by The Straits Times as saying that his country was “happy to agree” to the discontinuance.

In 2023, a special task force set up to study the case concluded that Mahathir may have made a mistake by withdrawing the application. At the time, then attorney-general Idrus Harun said Malaysia’s request to discontinue the case was “improper” and “not in order”.

Setting up an RCI

In April this year, law and institutional reform minister Azalina Othman Said was reported as attributing Malaysia’s loss of Batu Puteh to a “secret” decision made by “a former prime minister”.

On June 12, Mahathir denied making the decision unilaterally, calling Azalina’s accusations “nonsense”.

Mahathir said he had at the time consulted several international lawyers, including public international law expert, Brendan Plant, who took the view that Malaysia’s case was weak and lacked the “silver bullet” needed to secure victory.

In February, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Ibrahim agreed to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to review the handling of the case.

The king appointed a seven-member RCI panel, installing former chief justice Raus Sharif as chairman and retired Federal Court judge Zainun Ali as his deputy.

The five other panel members were senior lawyer Baljit Singh Sidhu, former Universiti Malaya faculty of law dean Johan Shamsuddin Sabaruddin, constitutional and administrative law expert Faridah Jalil, Johor state financial officer Ridha Abd Kadir and director of marine department southern region Dickson Dollah.

Last month, the High Court rejected Mahathir’s challenge to the appointments of Raus, Baljit and Ridha. The former prime minister also failed in his bid to have the hearing conducted in public.

The High Court has scheduled Sept 4 to hear Mahathir’s application to be represented by lawyers at the RCI hearing. - FMT

The rocky dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over Batu Puteh