Published: May 23, 2008
THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The International Court of Justice on Friday awarded Singapore sovereignty over a disputed island hosting a strategic lighthouse at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Straits.
The lighthouse on the granite rock has been a landmark for 150 years and a beacon of safety for hundreds of ships passing daily.
The U.N.'s highest court, however, gave Malaysia ownership of a smaller uninhabited outcropping. Sovereignty over a third disputed cluster of rocks was to be determined later by the countries when they sort our their territorial waters, the ruling said.
The three tiny rock clusters have been the scene of recorded shipwrecks for nearly 500 years, and now guard the entranceway to one of the world's busiest waterways used by some 900 ships daily.
Malaysia had disputed Singapore's rule of the two-acre (0.8 hectare) island listed on most maps as Pedra Branca and known by Malaysia as Pulau Batu Puteh. It is about 40 miles (65 kms) from Singapore, but only seven miles (10 kms) off the Malaysian coast.
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Singapore, a former British colony, claimed it inherited the island which it said was ceded to the British in the mid-1840s to build the lighthouse.
Malaysia said the sultan of Johor, whose ownership of the island was recognized as early as the 1500s, had given the British permission to build and operate the lighthouse but had never given up sovereignty.
The 16-member court agreed that Johor, now a Malaysian state, had historical ownership, but pointed to conflicting evidence about whether it had legally transferred sovereignty.
It ruled in favor of Singapore's argument that it had exercised sovereign powers over the rock since the Horsburgh lighthouse opened 1851, with no protest from Malaysia until 30 years ago.
Both sides said they accepted the ruling.
"It is a good example to the region of how such disputes can be resolved in a peaceful and amicable manner," said Singapore's deputy prime minister, S. Jayakumar.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim called it a win-win ruling since each side won a partial victory. Resolving such disputes through the rule of law, he said, "will make the world safer."
Yatim said the two countries would establish a committee to determine ownership of the third island, South Ledge, which lies in overlapping territorial waters.
The dispute erupted after Malaysia published a map in 1979 referring to the lighthouse island as its territory for the first time in modern history. Singapore protested, and the argument became a diplomatic irritant until they agreed in 2003 to submit the case to the U.N. court, also known as the world court.
The court examined treaties and documents dating back to 1824 governing an area hotly contested between the superpowers of the day, Britain and Holland.
But its final decision, by a 12-4 majority, rested largely on Singapore's consistent conduct over the last 100 years.
It took charge of investigating accidents in the surrounding waters, installed naval communications equipment in 1977 and published a series of six maps from 1962 to 1975 that showed Pulau Batu as Singaporean territory. Malaysia did not protest the maps.
The judges also gave weight to a 1953 exchange of letters between Singapore and Johor, then part of the Malaysian federation which also was a British colony. When Singapore asked for information on the island's status, Johor's state secretary replied that his government "does not claim ownership."
In its oral presentations last year, Malaysia representative Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Mohamad argued that Singapore's claim had "implications for the territorial and maritime stability of the straits," and that resolving the case was crucial for maritime and environmental safety.