Transcript of Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the Launch of "Pedra Branca: Story of the Unheard Cases”, 30 January 2019

31 January 2019

Thank you Lucy.  Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure for me to be here with you this evening.  I am delighted to be part of this introduction to this brand new book, entitled “Pedra Branca: Story of the Unheard Cases”.  Minister Heng leaned across to me just now and said, “So you’ve got to make a major foreign policy speech.”  So I said: “No, I’m not going to.  We want to focus on this book and what the effort behind this book represents.”



Some of you will remember that in 2008, the International Court of Justice delivered its judgment on the territorial dispute at that time between Singapore and Malaysia, and it ruled that sovereignty over Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore.  This judgment, we thought, brought closure to a long-standing dispute on sovereignty, and it helped to bring about greater stability in our bilateral relations.  But nine years later, Malaysia surprisingly filed applications for both revision and interpretation of the original 2008 ICJ Judgment.  Bilateral relations between the two countries had hitherto, in fact, been excellent.  We had regular meetings.  We had multiple big iconic projects in midstream.  And there was close cooperation across a wide variety of sectors.  To us, it was clear that Malaysia’s applications did not have strong legal grounds and we presumed that they were likely motivated by the then-Government’s desire to placate its domestic political ground, and also to appease some quarters in Malaysia which to be frank, have remained unhappy with the Court’s original judgment in 2008.



Whatever their motivations were, we were determined to mount the strongest possible response to both of these applications.  And that was why when I was informed of Malaysia’s applications, one of the first things I did, apart from consulting the Prime Minister, was to make three phone calls. Prof Jayakumar, Ambassador Tommy Koh and to the former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. All three of them were core members of the original legal team and I can share that they all said yes straight away. It was settled on the phone calls. In addition, Prof Jayakumar graciously agreed to head an inter-agency committee to formulate Singapore’s response to both these applications. And the team comprised of younger officials from MFA, AGC, MinLaw, MINDEF, MPA, MCI and National Archives, many of whom, in fact, are here today. You will notice I used the adjective “younger members”. And one key advantage that we had was that this was a 2G, 3G, 4G team, brought together and able to work cohesively, collectively, and effectively. And the team worked very hard over the course of several months and they put together a set of comprehensive and compelling rebuttals to both Malaysia’s applications. In addition to the formal applications, the team also had to respond quickly to some unexpected procedural requirements that were put forward by Malaysia, and this resulted in further rounds of written pleadings, and even an application to delay the oral hearings. We were confident of our case, and the correctness of the original ICJ judgment. However – and I’m not sure whether to use the word “fortunately” or “unfortunately” – but however, two weeks before the scheduled oral hearings for the case, the newly elected Pakatan Harapan government decided to discontinue the case. When Malaysia requested to discontinue the case, we were happy to agree. Both Malaysia and Singapore have gone through the due legal process and put this matter to rest.



What really impressed me from this experience, from this episode, was how we were able to bring together all the agencies to work so seamlessly to prepare for this case, and leaving no stone unturned. I also mentioned the fact that we were able to assemble different generations of officers together. PM Lee in his foreword to this book wrote that Singapore had been born out of exceptional circumstances, and had to fight to survive. That is true, and that will remain true. And what this means is that whenever our national interests are challenged, it is crucial that Singapore is able to mount a response that is robust and vigorous. And to do so, we will need – we will always need – resourceful, experienced committed, and passionate officers, and the ability to function as a Whole-of-Government, across all agencies. And in this case, the Committee’s hard work enabled Singapore to respond cogently and promptly to the developments in this case before the ICJ, through many twists and turns, which you will read about in the book, and they were able to defend effectively Singapore’s sovereignty and our national interest.



Even though the cases were discontinued, without being heard, the story of how the Singapore team came together and followed through with the challenge is one that deserves to be told.  And that’s why I supported Prof Jayakumar, Ambassador Koh and Deputy Attorney-General Lionel Yee, when they said they were going to publish this book.  The book tells the story of a small country mounting a huge and robust effort on the global stage.  We may be a tiny nation, but the Singapore spirit will always be united, resolute, and determined.  This book records an important chapter in a much longer story of ups and downs in our bilateral relations with Malaysia.  I have already spoken at length on this in Parliament a few weeks ago, so I’m not going to go through all that material again.  But let me just underscore this, as a small nation, we want good relations with all our neighbours, we want to have as many friends as possible.  And this is important when we address the inevitable bilateral issues that will crop up from time to time.  Our paramount objective will always be to protect our sovereignty, our independence, and our national interests, to do so in accordance with international law, and to ensure that all parties fully honour agreements which we have solemnly entered into.



Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah and I had a positive and constructive meeting earlier this month. It wasn’t just what we said, but the fact that we conducted that meeting. And I think that those of you that watched the videos can tell the body language was genuine. Similarly, Minister Khaw Boon Wan and his counterpart Anthony Loke also had open and candid discussions on airspace issues just last week. We will obviously have to continue these discussions, and we will do so in line with our consistent position that bilateral disputes are best resolved through negotiations, which allow both parties to reach an outcome that is acceptable to both in the long term. If the disputes cannot be settled by negotiations, we are then of course prepared to seek recourse through an appropriate international third party dispute settlement procedure on terms that are mutually agreed by the parties. I remain hopeful that we can resolve any issues that arise from time to time calmly, constructively, and in accordance with international law. And as you will see from the accounts in this book, regardless of whatever new challenges Singapore has to face, we will always mount a decisive and effective and collective Whole-of-Government response in order to protect our interests, and we will emerge from each episode stronger, more experienced, and more determined than before.



On this note, let me join everyone here in congratulating the authors.  But I think, knowing the authors, the people whom they really want to give credit to is the entire team.  So congratulations, and it’s been a privilege to have been a part of this effort and to thank all of you, I think especially for Prof Jaya and Tommy, this has been a labour of love, commitment which no one could ever demand or pay you for, or repay you.  Thank you so very much.



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