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RECENTLY the National Development Ministry of Singapore announced a move to start land reclamation work around Pedra Branca, just 600m away from Malaysia’s Batuan Tengah, by the end of this year. The reason for the project around the rocky outcrop is to improve maritime security and search and rescue capabilities involving the upgrade of berthing, logistics, administrative support and communications facilities.
Under Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, the project will reclaim about 10 football fields of land. Apart from confirming that it is within the Singapore’s territorial waters, Singapore claimed that the International Court of Justic in its judgment in 2008 has expressly noted Singapore intention to reclaim land at Pedra Branca.
While it may be true that the work on reclamation land and upgrading works around Pedra Branca is within Singapore’s sovereign right, Singapore being the closest neighbour has an obligation to consult Malaysia on their intention to pursue the project. Neighbourliness basically obligates states to try to reconcile their interests with the interests of neighbouring States and is now a legal mantra for those seeking remedial action especially against country that has caused harmful environmental destruction.
Although Singapore claimed that an environmental study has been carried out to assess the potential impact of the works on the surrounding marine environment and ecology, as well as on the safety of navigation in the relevant waters, Singapore, should extent the courtesy to share the report with Malaysia particularly where the study determined that environmental impact to the area involving Batuan Tengah.
Dispute to reclaim land by Singapore is not the first encountered by Malaysia. The first land reclamation case involving Malaysia and Singapore was a case concerning land reclamation in and around the Straits of Johor submitted before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos). The dispute started in 2002 when Singapore’s land reclamation works in Pulau Tekong and Tuas View Extension had attracted complaints from Malaysia.
Malaysia claimed that the reclamation works, inter alia, impinged on Malaysia’s territorial waters, caused pollution and other adverse harm to the marine environment in the Straits of Johor. Following the claim Malaysia invoked the provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and referring the dispute to arbitration. Subsequently, Malaysia applied to the Itlos for provisional measures to stop Singapore’s land reclamation works pending the outcome of the arbitration.
As for the legal duty, following the Itlos decision on the first land reclamation dispute between Malaysia and Singapore in 2003, the tribunal ordered that both Malaysia and Singapore must cooperate and consult each other and establish a group of independent experts with the mandate to conduct a study in term of reference to be agreed by both and the effects of Singapore land reclamation and to propose as appropriate measures to deal with any adverse effects of such land reclamation.