Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim spoke on Jan. 30 at the Malaysian High Commission while on his official visit to Singapore.
Speaking to an audience of mainly Malaysians residing or working in Singapore, he addressed Malaysia's stance on Pedra Branca, or Batu Puteh as the Malaysians refer to it.
In 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore. After the ICJ’s decision, both Singapore and Malaysia publicly announced that they will accept and abide by its decision.
Regret and pain over failure to appeal
“We have taken a very strong position, the present cabinet, expressing our regret for failure of the then Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, not to resort to appeal when we lost the case in the ICJ.”
He then said:
“But that's done. We disagree, but that's done. The ICJ has given its decision. And as a country we have to honour our commitment, and the agreement. Respect the decision of the ICJ.”
Nonetheless, Malaysia had to express the fact that it disagreed with Singapore.
Anwar also said that it was wrong for any Malaysian prime minister to ignore or dismiss the issue.
Alluding to remarks that Mahathir had made in the past where he referred to the island as “a stone”, Anwar said that it didn’t matter, and that Malaysia did not appeal when it should have done so.
So in discussion, Malaysia would take a stance that would allow Singapore to “understand the pain that we have got to go through”.
Saying that moving forward, there was no point in entering into conflict with Singapore over ownership of the island.
Ownership settled, other issues still on the table
"But," Anwar continued.
"Should we then go to war over Batu Puteh? No! Of course not! That's madness!"
But it was still important to touch on other issues related to Pedra Branca, such as the environment, or “some projects there that may affect our sovereignty or the borders”; these were issues that could be discussed.
On these issues Malaysia would continue to negotiate, but it would no longer negotiate on the basis of ownership of Pedra Branca.
Then with a wry smile, he added that the Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir would not be allowed to take leave until he helped resolve these issues.
Then addressing Malaysians in the audience, he said that a lack of preparedness and a lackadaisical attitude towards negotiations had led to the current state of affairs, and that would have to change going forward.
Relating a humorous exchange between him and PM Lee on the water agreement, Anwar told PM Lee that he was a "new guy in this game", and that he had only been in the role for two months.
The end of the beginning?
Pedra Branca has been a perennial issue in bilateral relations, one that Singapore considers to have been resolved through the ICJ, especially after Malaysia's right to appeal the verdict expired in 2018.
However, it has been the cause of some disquiet on the Malaysian front, with the Sultan of Johor, former PMs such as Mahathir, and others all adding in their opinions on the rights and wrongs of decisions made about the island.
Singapore has repeatedly said it would robustly defend its sovereignty regarding the islands.
Recent discussion of Pedra Branca arises in part due to Anwar telling the Malaysian Attorney General to review the 2018 decision to not appeal the ICJ decision.
He appears to be signalling that the review is a matter of internal processes rather than contention over ownership of Pedra Branca.
Top image via Anwar Ibrahim/Facebook