Sunday, 11 October 2015

Tommy Koh: International law 'helps protect Singapore's interests'

Republic adopts principled approach in always abiding by it, says Tommy Koh
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 9 Oct 2015

Singapore has sought to use international law as both a sword to advance its interests, and a shield to defend its interests, veteran diplomat Tommy Koh said yesterday.

It therefore adopts a principled approach in always abiding by international law, he told 200 members and guests of the Law Society of Singapore at a lecture titled Singapore And International Law: A 50-Year Retrospective.

This approach guided founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, added Professor Koh, who recounted how when Mr Lee was told that something he suggested was not consistent with international law, he would drop the idea altogether.

However, Singapore's belief in international law is "not based on blind faith", Prof Koh said.

"We know that the international rule of law is weak and cannot deter a determined aggressive power, such as Russia, from using military force to secure its strategic objectives," said Prof Koh, who chairs the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore and is also an Ambassador- at-Large.

"We accept the reality that when there is a collision between law and military power, military power usually prevails, at least for the short term," he said.

The first principle of Singapore's foreign policy, Prof Koh said, has always been to be strong economically and militarily so it can defend its independence and territorial integrity.

Singapore, he added, should also work assiduously with other like-minded countries to strengthen the international rule of law because "as a small country, we want to live in a world which is ruled by law rather than by force".

Prof Koh cited several cases in which Singapore has relied on international law to protect its interests.

In 1961 and 1962, Singapore had entered into Water Agreements with Johor which, as a constituent state of Malaysia, does not have the legal status to enter into an international treaty. To protect its vital interests, Singapore inserted a "water clause" in the Independence of Singapore agreement with Malaysia that was eventually registered with the United Nations, Prof Koh noted.

He also cited two separate disputes with Malaysia, over land reclamation off Pulau Tekong and Tuas, and over Pedra Branca.

In 2002, Malaysia had accused Singapore of encroaching into its territorial waters with reclamation works in Tuas. Malaysia referred the dispute to arbitration, and Prof Koh noted that the eventual report by an arbitral tribunal largely exonerated Singapore. But it required Singapore to modify the contours of reclamation in Pulau Tekong and pay some compensation.

Both countries had also referred their dispute over Pedra Branca to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). While Singapore was relieved that the ICJ awarded Pedra Branca to Singapore in 2008, it was "rather disappointed" that it granted Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

Both governments accepted the judgment, and Pedra Branca is "no longer a divisive issue, no longer an irritant, in our bilateral relations".

This outcome, he added, was justification for being willing to acknowledge the dispute and to take the risk of losing the case in the ICJ.

'No lax standards despite having signed fewer pacts'
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 9 Oct 2015

Singapore may not have acceded to as many international conventions or treaties compared with other countries, but this does not mean it has lax standards, veteran diplomat Tommy Koh said yesterday.

He noted that in many cases, Singapore has actually exceeded the benchmarks required in those conventions, including those on human rights and labour rights.

But he said: "We tend to be much more cautious than other countries in undertaking an international legal obligation, unless we can satisfy ourselves that we are in the position to live up to that obligation.

"We are much more conscientious," said Professor Koh, who chairs the National University of Singapore's Centre for International Law and is Ambassador-at-Large.

"Many countries take a very cavalier attitude and just sign up for everything," he said.

"But it doesn't mean that they internalise the international legal obligations and that they implement these legal obligations."

Prof Koh's remarks, made after he gave a lecture at a Law Society of Singapore event, were in reply to a question from Senior Counsel Michael Hwang.

Mr Hwang, vice-chairman of the Law Society's committee on public and international law, noted that some lawyers have been asked by their foreign counterparts why Singapore had not signed on to some conventions.

Prof Koh explained that Singapore practises a "very collegial inter-agency consultation" where decisions are made by consensus, not on the majority agreeing to them. This means that if any one ministry or agency has reservations on a matter, the rest would not proceed.

He also spoke about the "constant tussle" in diplomacy over whether to put friendship or principles first. He noted that on many occasions, Singapore has taken the stance that it is not right for a big country to use force to invade and occupy a smaller country - even if that stance was opposed to that of a friend or an ally.

"We would be unimportant to the world if we were just another small, opportunistic country," said Prof Koh. "The reason we are taken note of in the United States and in the world is that we are a small, successful and, hopefully most of the time, a principled country."

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