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Singapore lighthouse on a Malaysian island

New Straits Times logo New Straits Times 10/7/2019 Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli
a close up of a map © Provided by Media Prima

PULAU Pisang is a small island off the western coast of Johor at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca.

It is the site of Pulau Pisang Light, a lighthouse which guides ships into the western entrance of the busy Singapore Strait and which was built by the British in 1914.

For almost a century, Pulau Pisang Light has functioned as an aid for maritime navigation.

Even though Malaysia has sovereignty over Pulau Pisang, this is not entirely the case with Pulau Pisang Light as it is manned by Singapore.

This unique arrangement was created in 1900 as a result of an agreement between Sultan Ibrahim of Johor and the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir James Alexander Sweetenham.

This landmark agreement marked a momentous occasion; the Sultan of Johor granted the rights in perpetuity to the British the plot of land on which the lighthouse stands and to the roadway leading to it.

Upon the separation of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, it inherited the territory that forms the modern-day Republic of Singapore.

The responsibility of managing the lighthouse remains with Singapore, and the Malaysian government has no intention of taking over this task in the near future.

SOVEREIGNTY OVER PULAU PISANG

In 2003, the then minister for foreign affairs of Singapore, Professor S. Jayakumar, mentioned to the republic’s parliament that the sovereignty over Pulau Pisang is with Malaysia.

He also reiterated that Singapore had never disputed Malaysia’s sovereignty over Pulau Pisang.

However, the management of Pulau Pisang Light should remain with Singapore.

In order to show Malaysia’s sovereignty over the island, the lighthouse keepers from Singapore needed to get their passports stamped at Kukup immigration in Johor before heading to Pulau Pisang. Before 2002, there was no such requirement.

Nevertheless, the fact that Pulau Pisang Light is still exclusively managed by Singapore shows that Malaysia, in a way, has yet to have full sovereignty over Pulau Pisang.

Under international law, prescription refers to acquisition of sovereignty by way of actual exercise of sovereignty, maintained for a reasonable period of time and is effected without objection from any states.

Singapore’s management of Pulau Pisang has taken place since 1900 and it continues up till now without persistent objection from the Malaysian authorities.

In deciding the Malaysia-Indonesia dispute over Pulau Sipadan and Ligitan, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) looked at the case based upon the concept of “effective occupation”.

As early as 1914, Great Britain took steps to regulate and control the collection of turtle eggs on Ligitan and Sipadan without any clear objection from the government of the Dutch East Indies. These activities were continued by the independent state of the former British North Borneo, Sabah, when it came together with Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963, again, without persistent protest from its successor Indonesia.

As a result, the ICJ awarded both these islands to Malaysia on the basis of effective occupation shown by Malaysia’s predecessor (the British) and the absence of any other superior title.

Referring to the scenario of Pulau Pisang Light, it is clear that Singapore has been actively engaged in the management of the lighthouse without consistent objection by Malaysia.

If this takes place continuously, it may not be too surprising in the future if Malaysia’s total sovereignty over Pulau Pisang is put in dispute and Singapore might want to put its claim over the area on the island where the lighthouse is located.

A WAY FORWARD

It has been five years since the judgment on Pedra Branca was made and it still haunts Malaysia. It is indisputable that Singapore has clearly made remarks recognising Malaysia’s sovereignty over Pulau Pisang. However, how could a country be positively sure of its sovereignty over its own territory if part of it is manned by a foreign state?

Therefore, the agreement entered into by the Sultan of Johor and Sir Sweetenham back in 1900 should be reviewed and the control over Pulau Pisang Light should be rightfully handed over to Malaysia.

Pulau Pisang belongs to Malaysia and the Malaysian authorities should take any measures necessary to ensure the entire island remains in totality under Malaysia’s sovereignty.

The writer is associate professor at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and an honorary Lieutenant Commander of the Malaysian Navy.

© New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd

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