TL;DR – Our sovereignty is being tested. Again.
I recall once having a conversation with a youth. He’s a bright young chap. From one of the elite schools. Very eloquent. But for some strange reasons, he was convinced that Singapore doesn’t need the policy of National Service. He thought that the SAF is a white elephant that takes up too much of our national budget.
How did he come to this conclusion? Because he’s convinced that no one would go to war in this day and age. There are international institutions where international disputes would be amicably settled. The young chap cited Singapore’s dispute with Malaysia over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and the South Ledge. “See,” he said, “All settled without sabre rattling!”
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how such a bright young chap could have been so extremely naive. To be fair, that conversation happened many years ago. Before Crimea got annexed by Russia. Before China decided to ignore claims by other countries on disputed territories in the South China Sea and the ruling by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
You see, international law isn’t like the law of a nation. In a country, there are organisations tasked to enforce the laws. These could be the police, or some regulatory agency. When these organisations are well-resourced and properly staffed, the laws are well-enforced. There are fewer people who break the law. Those who do are promptly punished and, where possible, made to pay restitution to those they have transgressed against.
What about international law? Who enforces them? The international community? Who’s that? There isn’t a global police force going around patrolling and ensuring that no one nation transgresses against another. Did anyone do anything to really punish Russia? Not quite. At least not enough to force them to give Crimea back to Ukraine. And no one has done anything to stop China from reclaiming land in the disputed territories in the South China Sea.
So now, the Pedra Branca issue. Again.
Have you heard about how Malaysia has filed an application and documentation on Thursday for a revision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) judgment on sovereignty over Pedra Branca?
Singapore and Malaysia had been in dispute over the ownership of Pedra Branca for a long time now. This, along with Middle Rocks and South Ledge.
Back in 2003, the two countries referred the dispute over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge to the ICJ. The hearing lasted some three weeks and took place in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Judgement came in 2008, and the ICJ had ruled that sovereignty over Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore, sovereignty over Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia and sovereignty over South Ledge belongs to the state in the territorial waters of which it is located.
When our Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) heard about Malaysia’s application filed on Thursday, one spokesperson said of the 2008 ICJ ruling,
“Its judgment was final, binding and without appeal.”
“Under Article 61 of the Statute of the ICJ, an application for revision of a judgment may be made only when it is based upon the discovery of some fact of such a nature as to be a decisive factor, and which was, when judgment was given, unknown to the court and the party claiming revision. Such an application must be made within 10 years of the date of the judgment, and at latest within six months of the discovery of the new fact.”
We reckon Malaysia must have unearthed some new evidence for them to file the application.
So why did Malaysia go for arbitration in the ICJ over Pedra Branca?
Why do they now have to apply to revise the ICJ’s ruling in 2008? Why don’t they just do what Russia and China did? Why don’t they just claim that little crop of rocks and tell Singapore to shut up?
Because they can’t. But that’s not because there is some global superpower enforcing international law and maintaining peace in the world. They can’t because they know Singapore’s response would be swift and decisive if they ever tried to ride roughshod over us. So they know that if they ever wanted that crop of rock, they would need to depend on rulings by international institutions. Because they know Singapore will respect those rulings.
In other words, Singapore can depend on international law and rulings of international organisations largely because we have the ability to enforce international law and rulings which impact our sovereignty. We don’t have to depend on some global superpower or big brother to take care of us. We don’t need to wait for a white knight to come galloping to our rescue if anyone tries to threaten our sovereignty.
And other than the fact that we now (hopefully and thankfully) live in more civilised times, that is only possible because we have a credible defence force. That is what makes diplomacy possible. Without a credible defence force, there is no diplomacy. No one would ever need to be diplomatic with us. They can just take whatever they want.
So. Yes. We need to be more prudent with the way our defence budget is spent. So. Yes. We do need to ensure that we are getting the greatest bang for our buck. But make no mistake about it. We need to invest in our defence capabilities.
Anyone who claims that we can cut our defence by 40% and think that we will still have the necessary defence capabilities to fend off threats to our sovereignty are obviously not thinking too clearly. Either that or they are treasonous. We hope it’s the former.
The recent episodes where other nations ‘test’ our sovereignty are good enough reminders that we need to get our defence policies right. Only then do we have a fighting chance to remain sovereign and independent.
And oh, in case anyone’s curious about Malaysia’s motive, there’s a popular theory, and it appears that our Ambassador-at-large, Mr Bilahari Kausikan, thinks it’s a probable idea too.