Malaysia failed to claim Pulau Batu Putih despite strong historical credentials

MALAYSIA’s sixth prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had lambasted his mentor-turned-nemesis, Malaysia’s fourth and seventh prime minister Tun Mahathir Mohammed, for giving up the claim on Pulau Batu Putih.

The rocky island off the coast of Johor has no economic value but is of strategic importance.

The long maritime dispute between Singapore and Malaysia as to who is the rightful claimant was referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

This was after numerous diplomatic efforts failed to resolve as to who was the rightful claimant to the island.

In 2008, the verdict of the ICJ turned the island over to Singapore.

Why the matter was referred to the ICJ remains a mystery until today, as it happened during the Mahathir administration.

Mahathir must answer the question as to why the matter was jointly referred to the ICJ when other diplomatic paths could have been pursued.

Since Singapore stands to gain much from its long term relationship with Malaysia, such an advantage could have been pursued diplomatically to bring Pulau Batu Putih within Malaysia’s control.

In fact, appearing before the court to argue its case, Singapore’s legal team was more thoroughly prepared than Malaysia.

The island was given to Singapore not because the island state had any strong historical claims but rather because the city state could put a fine and competent defence team to win the case.

I was even told that although Malaysia had a strong case and could have had possibly won the island, the facts presented was not watertight and lacked competency.

Mahathir has to answer for this colossal failure.

He should not try to blame others, which is a familiar trait of his if something goes wrong.

(Photo credit: JohorKini)

When he was the seventh prime minister, Mahathir again did not attempt to appeal for a judicial review of the matter, or in other words, appeal the earlier decision of the ICJ.

Mahathir was wrongly advised that Malaysia had no chance of winning the appeal and that the cost of the appeal was too high.

Mahathir had the chance, but again he fumbled on the matter.

It was not for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government or Mahathir to decide against the appeal on grounds that they had no chance whatsoever.

They should have left the appeal to be decided by the ICJ or the Appeals Court.

Who knows, Malaysia might have won the appeal.

It was not for the government under Mahathir to decide as to whether the matter was winnable or not.

For failing to appeal by citing irrational arguments, Mahathir must answer to the Malaysian public as to why he failed to retrieve Pulau Batu Putih.

I am not sure how a task force is formed to ascertain whether the government of Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob can proceed with the judicial review of the earlier decision by the ICJ to give the Pulau Batu Putih to Singapore.

I am not sure if Malaysia has a chance after a gap of 13 years.

But it is certainly worth the try, although I have my doubts that the hurriedly-formed task force can address the matter.

It is not really a task force in the usual sense of the concept but a hastily formed committee tasked to perform a political drama.

The task force on Pulau Batu Putih seems more politically motivated rather than genuinely being interested in addressing the issue Pulau Batu Putih that has symbolic and strategic value to Malaysia.

I still think it might be too late to pursue a diplomatic line in working on the long term interests of both Malaysia and Singapore.

Anyway, if it is still possible to appeal the earlier decision of the ICJ, then it must be done.

All legal avenues must be exhausted before the diplomatic option is considered again.

Alternatively, Malaysia might even want to think of the future possible scenario of joint ownership for the promotion of the geo-political interests of both countries.

I hate to say this, but Najib might be right in saying that it was none other than Mahathir who is responsible for losing Pulau Batu Putih to Singapore.

Not that he (Mahathir) willingly gave it up, but he failed to mount a serious challenge to Singapore’s claim to the island.

Malaysia lost the matter in the ICJ because the legal case was not well prepared and articulated compared to Singapore.

When Mahathir was the seventh prime minister, he had failed to appeal the matter on grounds of winnability and cost.

It is not too late to revisit the case of Pulau Batu Putih again but time might not be on Malaysia’s side. – Oct 13, 2021


Ramasamy Palanisamy is the state assemblyperson for Perai. He is also deputy chief minister II of Penang.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia

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