Transcript of Interview by Minister Jayakumar to BBC World Service on Singapore - Malaysia Relations

27 February 2003

Transcript of Interview by Minister Jayakumar to BBC World Service on Singapore - Malaysia Relations


Q: Now let's talk about the Pedra Branca island or the Pulau Batu Puteh as the Malaysians called this island, you decided to refer it to the International Court of Justice

A: Yes

Q: Ok, let me just rephrase that. I'd like to move on and talk about the territorial dispute with the Malaysians, you decided to refer the Pedra Branca island or the Pulau Batu Puteh island to the International Court of Justice - is that a sign that perhaps the relationship has got so bad that you can't sort this out bilaterally?

A: Let me give you some background. How the dispute arose was in 1979, when Malaysia published a map claiming Pedra Branca as their territory for the first time. Thereafter, we had discussions at various levels and in 1989, Singapore proposed that instead of this being an irritant in bilateral relations, to resolve the matter, we refer it to the International Court of Justice. That was in '89. And in '94, Malaysia agreed and thereafter, there were several rounds of discussions and in 1998, the two sides initialled the agreement to refer to the International Court of Justice and it's taken some time for us to formalise the agreement. So, is it a sign that the relations have gotten so bad? Most territorial disputes have to be resolved either through negotiations or through Third Party adjudication or arbitration.

Q: And you're admitting by going to the ICJ that you can't deal with this through bilateral negotiations, that they've come to a dead end, that things are not good with the Malaysians at the moment.

A: Now the territorial dispute is one where after several rounds of exchanges of documents and discussions, both sides maintain that they have the legal case. Singapore's position was that we, and our predecessors, the British, have been in occupation for more than 150 years. But the Malaysians claimed that they had a legal case, so we said that the best way is, let's move on with our bilateral relations, don't let this be an impediment and let's have this settled by the International Court of Justice.

Q: Minister, you're perhaps suggesting that this is perhaps an aberration, is a one-off thing. Others are suggesting you might resolve other bilateral issues with Malaysia in precisely the same way. For example, the problems over water. Now, is that something which your side would consider doing?

A: Not only would we consider doing but we have actually proposed to the Malaysians that we should adopt the same approach as for Pedra Branca. We did that because when you have disputes and disagreements, particularly a disagreement which turns on interpretation of agreements, then if this cannot be resolved by discussions and talks, and you have an impasse - rather than that impasse bedevilling the totality of relations, it's best that we find a way of solving that, and Singapore proposed that we solve it through the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and Malaysians could not agree to that. Then we said, we fall back on the arbitration provisions in the Water Agreements.

Q: Now one of the things that marred your relationship with the Malaysians was the publication by Singapore of personal letters or letters between your Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammed. Now it was hardly diplomatic, was it, to publish these letters?

A: The reason why we had to do that was, for the better part of last year, the Malaysians engaged in a whole barrage of accusations and allegations against Singapore over what we called the "package talks", talks which we had to resolve several outstanding issues, particularly on the issue of water negotiations. And we were accused of being the unreasonable party. Various other false statements were made, that the water agreements were fixed by the British and a colonial imposition when it was not true. These were agreements signed by independent Malaya and reaffirmed as guarantees in Separation Agreement. So, when we were at the receiving end of all these untrue statements and we were painted as the unreasonable party, when we were in fact trying to accommodate Malaysia at every turn, we had no choice. We had to set out the facts in a persuasive and conclusive manner and the only way to do that was to disclose the documents - they are not personal letters - they are all documents and letters for the record, and let the record speak for itself and let the people judge, and this is what we did.

Q: But when Dr Mahathir uses strong and sometimes colourful language on this issue, do you regret that, would you say it's unhelpful?

A: They have their style of speaking and addressing the issue. What we are concerned with, really, is, two things - what are the facts on the issue, and if the facts have been inaccurately presented, or in fact distorted, we have to set the record straight. And that's what we did. The second point, really is, when we have this impasse and disagreements, how do we move forward? Our position is that when we have disagreements concerning important treaties and agreements, such as the Water Agreements, the issue really is, observance of agreements which have been validly concluded, and we were concerned, when statements were made that they will pass or enact a domestic law to nullify these Agreements, and we said, that's not the way - that's not in keeping with international law and accepted conventions of settling international disputes. So, let us refer this to arbitration. These are the two key points that have been made by us.

Q: When you say that the Malaysians were issuing distorted statements, are you saying that they are liars?

A: I'm not interested in labels such as that. What we are interested is, what is the correct presentation of what has transpired? It does not do any good for one to call each other names, but when we have been presented as the party which was being unreasonable in the negotiations, when the negotiations were presented in an inaccurate way, we don't call others names but we have to set the record straight.

Q: Finally, are you confident that the relationship, in spite of all these things, can ultimately be a strong relationship? I mean there are so many problems, where do you see the future of this relationship?

A: Well, Malaysia and Singapore are close neighbours. As close neighbours, we have our ups and downs - this has happened before - but if you look at the totality of the relations, there is a great deal that both countries stand to benefit by nurturing the relationship. For example, we are important to each other in terms of trade, investments, tourism; there's a lot of mobility of people, both ways. So Singapore's approach is, yes, we have this problem, whether it's Pedra Branca, or on the water issue, let us move on with our relationship, let us find a way of solving these single disagreements, and our approach is - resolve that in accordance with law, international law, and compliance with existing agreements.

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[*Note: An extract of this interview was aired on the BBC World Service "World Today" news programme on 27 Feb 2003.]

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