Malaysia establishes Royal Commission of inquiry on disputed islets: Examining Pedra Branca conflict with Singapore

In recent developments, Malaysia’s announcement of a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the Pedra Branca dispute with Singapore signals a re-evaluation of the 2018 decision to withdraw its International Court of Justice (ICJ) appeal.

Malaysia’s cabinet announced on Wednesday that it will establish a royal commission of inquiry to examine the management of cases concerning three contested islets in the Singapore Strait. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has advocated for a reassessment of Malaysia’s 2018 choice, made during Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure as premier, to withdraw its appeal to amend an International Court of Justice (ICJ) verdict granting Singapore control over Pedra Branca, one of the islets.

In 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) granted Malaysia ownership of the Middle Rocks formation, while neighbouring Pedra Branca, referred to as Pulau Batu Puteh by Malaysia, was awarded to Singapore. Malaysia initiated efforts in 2017 to challenge the ICJ’s decision regarding Pedra Branca but abandoned its pursuit a year later following the assumption of Mahathir as prime minister.

On Tuesday, Chief Secretary to the Government Mohd Zuki Ali announced that recommendations for the composition of the inquiry panel will be presented to Malaysia’s king for approval. According to Mohd Zuki, the recommendations will prioritize individuals with extensive expertise in judicial, legal, and public administration matters to ensure a transparent, fair, and impartial investigation.

In its ruling regarding Pedra Branca, the ICJ noted that although Malaysia’s ancient Sultanate of Johor originally held ownership over the island, Malaysia had failed to respond to Singapore’s actions asserting sovereignty over the small outcrop, such as the installation of military communication equipment in 1977.

The island holds significant strategic value for Singapore due to its location at the eastern entrance of the Straits of Singapore. These straits are connected to the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes globally. This strategic positioning makes Pedra Branca crucial to Singapore, particularly because it operates one of the world’s busiest ports.


Background of the dispute

Pedra Branca is a small granite outcrop positioned 25 nautical miles (46 km; 29 mi) east of Singapore and 7.7 nautical miles (14.3 km; 8.9 mi) south of Johor, Malaysia. It sits at the confluence of the Singapore Strait and the South China Sea. Nearby, there are two other maritime features: Middle Rocks, located 0.6 nautical miles (1.1 km; 0.69 mi) south of Pedra Branca, comprising two clusters of small rocks about 250 meters (820 ft) apart; and South Ledge, situated 2.2 nautical miles (4.1 km; 2.5 mi) south-southwest of Pedra Branca, which is visible solely during low tide.

Singapore has administered Pedra Branca since the construction of the Horsburgh Lighthouse by its predecessor, the United Kingdom, between 1850 and 1851. The island came under British control following its cession by Sultan Hussein Shah and Temenggung Abdul Rahman Sri Maharajah of Johor to the British East India Company through the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance of 2 August 1824 (the Crawfurd Treaty). Subsequently, it became part of the Straits Settlements in 1826, which were under British rule through the Government of India at the time of the lighthouse’s construction.

On 21 December 1979, Malaysia’s Director of National Mapping published a map titled “Territorial Waters and Continental Shelf Boundaries of Malaysia,” which claimed Pedra Branca within Malaysia’s territorial waters. Singapore disputed this claim in a diplomatic note on 14 February 1980 and requested correction of the map. Despite efforts to resolve the dispute through diplomatic channels and intergovernmental talks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the disclosure of documentary evidence by Singapore’s Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik to his Malaysian counterpart, the issue remained unresolved. Consequently, Malaysia and Singapore agreed to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for resolution.


Royal Commission of Inquiry

According to the Malaysian Bar, which oversees the legal profession, a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) is a fact-finding body convened by the king upon the advice of the Cabinet. It is established to investigate matters deemed of significant public importance and controversy. These matters may involve the conduct of government officials, public service departments, or issues related to public welfare. Typically, the commission comprises former judges who are tasked with conducting an inquiry and compiling their findings into a report. However, it’s important to note that an RCI is not a court and lacks the authority to press charges against individuals or issue sentences. One of the key powers of an RCI is its ability to subpoena witnesses and compel important government officials to provide evidence under oath, ensuring a thorough investigation into the matter at hand.


Singapore’s reaction

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) recently stated that the inquiry initiated by Malaysia is regarded as an internal matter for Malaysia. A spokesperson emphasized that they do not anticipate this development to have any negative impact on the strong bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore has reiterated its firm commitment to defending its sovereignty over Pedra Branca. The MFA emphasized that after the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) ruling, both countries publicly affirmed their acceptance and compliance with the Court’s decision, which is considered final. Furthermore, the MFA highlighted Malaysia’s attempt in 2017 to seek a revision and interpretation of the ICJ’s 2008 decision, which was subsequently withdrawn in 2018. It was noted that under the Statute of the Court, any application for revision is invalid after the expiration of ten years from the date of the original judgment, which was in May 2018.


Future possibilities

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) being convened in Malaysia is anticipated to undergo a lengthy process of formation, deliberation, and report submission. Once the report is finalized, recommendations may be made to the attorney-general for potential charges against individuals implicated in criminal offences. While some speculate that the RCI could be utilized by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to address past political and business adversaries, others argue that the inquiry’s focus on national sovereignty transcends individual political agendas. Malaysian officials have also suggested that the RCI serves a broader purpose of learning from past mistakes and gaining insights to aid the country in ongoing negotiations, particularly with Singapore, regarding territorial disputes. Given the importance of these issues, the findings of the RCI are expected to play a significant role in shaping Malaysia’s approach to bilateral talks with its neighbouring countries.