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Malaysia, Singapore to Refer Island Dispute to World Court - 2003-02-06

Malaysia and Singapore agreed Thursday to submit a territorial dispute over a strategic island to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, ending weeks of verbal bickering. The agreement brings at least a temporary halt to another irritant in the often-troubled relations between the two neighboring countries.

Smiles radiated from the faces of Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar and his Singaporean counterpart, Shunmugam Jayakumar, as the agreement was signed. The two Southeast Asian nations have been embroiled in a verbal battle since December over who owns the Singapore Straits islet, known in Singapore as Pedra Branca and in Malaysia as Pulau Batu Putah.

The signing took place in Malaysia's administrative capital, Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur. The two sides will now have up to 28 months to submit written arguments and counter-arguments to the World Court in the Hague, before making oral presentations. The agreement also needs to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries.

The atmosphere at the signing was in contrast to the recent tension, with Syed expressing his happiness and Jayakumar noting that both countries have agreed to resolve the issue amicably. The dispute over the islet and another long-standing issue, the price of water that Malaysia sells to Singapore, have recently driven relations into a tailspin.

The Singapore government had warned the dispute over the islet could escalate to dangerous levels if tensions were not reduced. Mr. Syed says Malaysia and Singapore can now both go about their business and maintain their own positions over the rocky outcrop amid the busy shipping lanes until the court rules.

Malaysia watchers in Singapore predicted the signing will still not force Malaysia to stop its incursions into Singapore's claimed waters off Pedra Branca. Singapore, which maintains a lighthouse on the island, wants Malaysian naval and marine police vessels to stay away.

While some analysts do not see relations between the two nations improving any time soon, others view the signing as a step forward. Dr. K.S. Nathan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the signing shows ties are sufficiently institutionalized to weather the difficulties that crop up from time to time.