Friday Jottings: The context of when small is big

After all, the ICJ ruling against Malaysia over its claim on Pulau Batu Puteh was based on a letter from a previous Johore administration stating that it has no interest in claiming the jutting rocks

pic by BERNAMA

IT CAUSED quite a regional stir when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s sarcastic — and to a large degree cynical — remarks, that Malaysia, or rather Johor, reclaims Singapore and Riau, was reported out of context.

Whether it was intentional or otherwise is anybody’s guess but the reactions were puerile if not outrightly dense.

One came from the speaker of the Singapore Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, who shared the media report and flippantly wrote “here we go again” on his social media account.

Tan probably took his position in the Singapore political structure literally and thus “spake but thinketh not”.

Otherwise, if he had given it some thought or done a bit of reading, he would have realised that Dr Mahathir’s remarks had nothing to do with wanting to reclaim Singapore and by extension Riau, but rather a two-pronged message.

Firstly, it was about how much the Malay land has diminished and attenuated over a period of time and that included Singapore as well as Riau, apart from the northern Malay states which the British unilaterally ceded to Thailand in the Anglo-Siam treaty over a century ago.

Secondly, the Malays have lost these lands forever and it was important for them to realise it so as to protect whatever they still have and what is left today is only the Malay peninsula and even that is slowly diminishing due to the Malays’ weakened economic position.

That was the first context.

The second part is that the remarks were directed at the Johor Royals and those who had been harping on the issue of Pulau Batu Puteh or Pedra Branca as called by the Singaporeans.

The Johor Sultan and some members of Umno have been accusing Dr Mahathir of being un-patriotic for not pursuing the appeal at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which had in 2008 decided that Pulau Batu Puteh belonged to Singapore while Batuan Tengah or Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia.

Dr Mahathir has pointed out that the decision by the Pakatan Harapan government and him as then prime minister (PM) to not pursue the appeal was based on legal advice given then and on the principle that when the ICJ made a decision on such a case, it would be accepted.

That was the principle held by Indonesia when Malaysia was granted the Ligitan and Sipadan islands by the ICJ in 2002. Indonesia did not appeal nor contest the decision because the principle held by contesting nations was that they turn to the ICJ so as not to allow such disputes to fester and affect bilateral ties.

In that context, appeals and counterappeals would prolong the dispute and create more blood instead of being an arbitration that ends the dispute amicably and relatively fast.

The issue of reclaiming Singapore and Riau was brought up as a backhanded reprimand of the Johor Royals for it was under their watch that Singapore was sold to the British and lackadaisical attitude that Riau and other surrounding islands under the Johore Empire were lost.

To Dr Mahathir, the passion shown by the Johor Royals and their supporters on the issue of the appeal over the small Pulau Batu Puteh was inconsistent with their sentiments when losing much greater territories such as Singapore and Riau.

To him, if they were so passionate about losing the small rocks of Pulau Batu Puteh, why don’t they channel such sentiments towards reclaiming Singapore and Riau.

Obviously, that is something that is not going to happen and what the Malays have lost, is lost.

After all, the ICJ ruling against Malaysia over its claim on Pulau Batu Puteh was based on a letter from a previous Johore administration stating that it has no interest in claiming the jutting rocks.

That is the whole context which is actually not a difficult thing to comprehend which leads to the curious case of the Singapore speaker, especially when Singaporeans had always taken pride in their leaders’ credentials and wear them on their sleeves.

If stupidity is not the context, then it has to be something more insidious which, if it concerns Malaysia-Singapore thorny relations, can only point towards resurrecting — “here we go again” — the siege mentality among Singaporeans, which was a potent tool in the republic’s political longevity.

And for the siege to wrap the mind, a bogeyman must be created and who else better than Dr Mahathir, known for his acerbic and scathing remarks whenever dealing with Singapore’s unreasonable, at times unscrupulous, attitude.

However, the Singapore speaker’s opinion is a minor distraction from what else is developing in the Johor and Malaysia front.

When Dr Mahathir said that the Pulau Batu Puteh is a trivial issue given the size of the rocks, again in the context of comparing with securing dominion on Ligitan and Sipadan as well as losing Singapore and Riau, a former PM waded in and questioned how could the issue of Pulau Batu Puteh is trivial.

Again, he too chose to ignore context and coming from him, it should be taken at best, as a joke.

It is not because former PM Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak has been declared a national embarrassment and convicted for stealing from the national kitty.

It is under his watch that nearly 1,400ha of Johore’s reclaimed land were sold to foreigners and with the blessings of the Johor palace. And the project is recently given the junk status by Moody’s.

And they are now the leading patriots over Pulau Batu Puteh.

Another bigger concern should be over the development of the Maharani Energy Gateway near Johore’s district of Muar which involved the reclamation of nearly 1,300ha.

Muar MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman has expressed fears on several issues pertaining to the project from the environment to the livelihood of some 1,000 fishermen.

Ironically, the project again involved the Sultan of Johor.

Then came the Sultan’s recent veiled threat of withdrawing the state from the federation for the alleged federal government’s unfair treatment of Johor.

It conjured uncertainties over state-federal relations and legal principles in particular sedition and equality before the eye of the law. It definitely leaves a bad after-taste.

It includes the incongruity of a feudal institution in a democratic setup.

 Shamsul Akmar is the editor of The Malaysian Reserve.