The invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbour

 Vivian Balakrishnan delivering Singapore’s National Statement at the UNOceanConference.

Vivian Balakrishnan delivering Singapore’s National Statement at the UN Ocean Conference (Twitter)

By Ivan Lim,
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN  

SINGAPORE: The world reacted with outrage when Vladirmir Putin sent Russian tanks and troops into Ukraine in a so-called special military operation to subdue a sovereign state that was bent on allying with the United States-backed European economic and military bloc.

Singapore was one of the first United Nations member-states to roar its disapproval of Moscow and followed it up with economic sanctions.

In a sense, the Lion City is acting as a responsible UN state. But more significantly, the small Asean state is also drawing attention to itself and its vulnerability.

As Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan put it: “Unless, we as a country stand up for principles that are the very foundations for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations, our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may be similarly be called into question on day.’’

However, the top diplomat gave little away on the source of potential threats to the nation’s existence and survival.

So was the republic, which had separated from in 1965 after an unhappy union with Malaysia, merely crying wolf?

To be sure, there had been a dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over ownership of isles — the entrance of Singapore Straits, namely Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge – which was referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In 2008, the ICJ ruled that Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore while Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia. As for South Ledge, visible only at low tide, it belongs to the state in the territorial waters of which it is located.

Unexpectedly, the resolved territorial dispute was raised by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir on June 19 at an event titled “Aku Melayu: Survival Bermula (I am Malay: Survival Begins), organised by Kongres Survival Melayu (Congress for Malay Survival), a grouping of several non-government-organisations in Selangor.

“We should demand not just that Pedra Branca, or Pulau Batu Puteh, be given back to us, we should demand Singapore as well as the Riau Islands, as they are Malay land,” he was reported a saying by the media.

As his controversial remarks raised eye-brows, Mahathir clarified that his comments were made in response to the Sultan of Johor. Ibrahim Iskandar. The latter had criticised the then Prime Minister for failing to consult with Johor in 2018 when it decided to withdraw its appeal to the ICJ over Pedra Branca.

Ibrahim called it “a clear breach of Johor’s rights as enshrined in the Federation Agreement”. The Sultan had said that the federal government treated the state of Johor like a “stepchild”.

In a statement on Thursday (June 24), Mahathir,96, said “I am not asking Malaysia to claim the land that we had lost.

“I am trying to point out that we are so concerned over losing a table-size rock but never about bigger parts of Malaysia when they were taken from us.”

Specifically, he pointed out there was no demand whatsoever of Singapore. “Instead, we should show our appreciation to the leadership of this new country called Singapore.”

Tanah Melayu (Malay land), he added, previously covered territories from the Isthmus of Kra in Southern Thailand, to the Riau Islands in Indonesia, as well as Singapore. Now only the Malay Peninsula is left.

(Mahathir also touched on Malaysia’s territorial dispute with Indonesia over the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan. In 2002, the ICJ ruled that both islands in the Celebes Sea belonged to Malaysia.)

He then “wondered whether the Malay Peninsula will belong to someone else in the future”.

Putting the Malaysian elder statesman’s hawkish comments in perspective, Singapore Defence Minister, Ng Eng Hen, told the media at the 55th anniversary of National Service event on June 30:

“Dr Mahathir wasn’t talking to us… He’s a known entity, is respected as an elder and he has dealt with previous prime ministers, including (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong). This is all on record.

“If you want to jump up and down each time Dr Mahathir speaks, then you will be jumping like a jumping bean. You have to take a few breaths and give him the respect that he is due. He says it for different audiences and he himself said that those comments were not for us, so we should just take it at face value.”

But Dr Mahathir’s nationalistic rhetoric – which won his audience’s applause – drew a sharp response from Jakarta.

Indonesia does not see any legal basis and reason for Tun Mahathir’s statement,” the foreign ministry’s spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, said on June 22.The Riau Archipelago is, and will always be, the territory of the Republic of Indonesia .

“In a time when the world is facing many challenges, a senior politician should not be making baseless statements that can harm friendships,” he added.

Such sentiments certainly chime with Singapore’s calling out against Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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