Dennis Ignatius: War of words over Pulau Batu Puteh

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Johor and the federal government are simply using the Pulau Batu Puteh issue to settle old scores with Mahathir.

There’s a verbal duel going on over Pulau Batu Puteh, a small rocky outcrop now under the jurisdiction of Singapore. Strangely, it’s not a war of words between Malaysia and Singapore but between Johor and Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It has also become a magnet for those with an axe to grind with Mahathir.

Winding up the debate on the Sultan’s speech at the Johor state assembly recently, Menteri Besar Onn Hafiz Ghazi called the loss of Pulau Batu Puteh (PBP) “a dark moment in the history of the nation” and demanded that legal action be taken against what he called a “betrayal” that led to the loss of sovereign territory. Though he did not mention Mahathir by name, it was clear that he was accusing the former prime minister of high treason for not pursuing efforts to recover sovereignty over the disputed island.

Ironically, while loudly mourning the loss of Pulau Batu Puteh, Johor feted the prime minister of Singapore and conferred upon him one of the state’s highest awards.

The controversy over Pulau Batu Puteh is not that complicated. In 2007, Malaysia and Singapore agreed to refer their dispute over the ownership of the island to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 2008, the court confirmed Singapore’s sovereignty over the island.

Ten years later, Mohamed Apandi Ali, who was attorney-general at the time, decided to ask the ICJ to review its earlier decision based on what he claimed was new evidence. It was a fool’s errand. In such cases, the court’s judgement is final, binding on all parties and without appeal. In any case, observers didn’t think the so-called new evidence was significant enough for the court to revise its judgement.

Mahathir, upon coming to office in May 2018 realised the futility of wasting yet more millions on a case that couldn’t be won and ordered the appeal discontinued. It could not have been an easy decision for him. Anyone who knows Mahathir knows he has no love for Singapore; he would never have given up on Pulau Batu Puteh if he thought there was even the slightest chance of winning. While much of the criticism directed at Mahathir is justified, this one is not.

It is clear that both Johor and the federal government are simply using the Pulau Batu Puteh issue to settle old scores with Mahathir. This is about politics and vengeance, not treachery or sovereignty.

The task force set up by the government to investigate Mahathir is a complete farce. If this was an honest attempt to understand the Pulau Batu Puteh case, why appoint the very official who initiated the ICJ review process, a man with credibility issues of his own and someone who was sacked by Mahathir, to head the task force? How impartial can he be? Mahathir was absolutely right not to cooperate with the task force.

As well, we all know that many of these grand endeavours are just plain ‘sandiwara’. Remember the task force to investigate the disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh or the commission set up to investigate the mass graves at Wang Kelian?

Najib Tun Razak, of course, lost no time taking Mahathir to task for refusing to cooperate with the task force. But who is Najib – now a convicted felon – to talk about responsibility or accountability? Where was his sense of responsibility or accountability when he swindled the nation of billions?

The whole fuss about the Pulau Batu Puteh issue is, in fact, a waste of time. Whether we like it or not, it is now a done deal. We should learn from Indonesia which graciously accepted an earlier ICJ decision confirming Malaysia’s sovereignty over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan. They most certainly didn’t like it but they were respectful enough of their international obligations to accept it.

Whatever it is, Pulau Batu Puteh, like the island of Singapore itself, is lost and lost forever. It’s time to move on and focus on the state of the rest of the country.