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Transcript of Professor Tommy Koh's interview with CNN's Atika Shubert on Land Reclamation, 23 Oct 03, 9.30 am, MFA

23 Oct 2003

23/10/2003 - Transcript of Professor Tommy Koh's interview with CNN's Atika Shubert on Land Reclamation, 23 Oct 03, 9.30 am, MFA

Q: How does Singapore balance its need to grow, to have more space, with the limited land availability?

Prof Koh: We all have to live with our destiny. Singapore's destiny is that we have to live happily in this small island that we were given. In order to accommodate growth, Singapore has been reclaiming land from the sea for over a hundred years. From the early 19th century when we were a British colony, we have been reclaiming land from the sea. I give you some familiar examples: Raffles Hotel is located on Beach Road. Why do you think it's called the Beach Road? Because that's where the beach was. Do you know that the famous Chinese temple along Telok Ayer Street used to be seafront? When Chinese immigrants first arrived on shore, the first place they would go to, was this temple facing the sea, to thank the Goddess of the Sea, Ma Zhou. Shenton Way, our financial centre, is reclaimed from the sea. Changi Airport is also reclaimed from the sea. So, we have no choice, but to reclaim land from the sea to accommodate growth.

But from the beginning, we have been very conscientious in that we have always done this: first, reclaim within our own territorial waters; and second, to do as little damage as possible to the marine environment.

Q: So how dependent would you say Singapore is on land reclamation?

Prof Koh: Very dependent. I think over the last 30 years, we have increased our physical size by about 10 per cent. So no land reclamation, no Changi Airport; no land reclamation, no financial centre, no Shenton Way.

Q: How does land reclamation in Singapore affect its relations with its neighbours, like Malaysia and Indonesia?

Prof Koh: It doesn't affect our relations with Indonesia because our physical spaces are sufficiently generous - we're not in close proximity to one another.

In the case of Malaysia, the recent dispute arose because my good friends in the north perceived our land reclamation as intruding into their territorial waters, which is not the case; and narrowing the shipping channel in the Straits of Johor, which is not the case; and causing serious damage to the marine environment which is a shared body of water, which is also not the case. I'd be happy to go into these points.

Q: I'd like to discuss the environmental point. There's been a lot of environmental criticism that it will cause long-term environmental damage. What's your take?

Prof Koh: ... The facts are quite simple. Before we undertake any land reclamation projects, several layers of approvals must be gone through, and very careful consideration is given to whether or not we should reclaim land in a particular proposed site. Once the approvals have been given, we then undertake a number of what we call 'pre-works technical studies'. These studies are to ensure that we will cause no serious damage to the environment if they were undertaken. These projects are massive. They are tendered out to international contractors. And these international contractors would all have a track record of land reclamation, whether in the Netherlands, Denmark or Japan. And we incorporate into the contracts, the highest standards of international best practice. For example, we ensure that no silt flows out of the reclamation site. We can actually enclose the site and prevent silt from flowing out. And we have monitoring stations which are installed all around the site to measure water quality, silt content, currents and so on, just to make sure that no harm is done. And if we are alerted to any harm, then we will take mitigation actions. This was our presentation to the international court in Hamburg. And I think the judges were very impressed by what Mrs Cheong was able to show them, that we are very meticulous and conscientious in ensuring that we don't do any damage to the marine environment.

Q: What about Malaysia's political concerns regarding the territorial aspect?

Prof Koh: There's only one territorial claim by Malaysia, and that's in the Western sector, in the Tuas area. I had the privilege of dealing with that point in Hamburg, so let me briefly explain. In 1979, Malaysia unilaterally published a map containing its continental shelf boundaries which had not been negotiated with anyone - this is what they think they are entitled to - so they published this map. We noticed from this map that they had carved a very unusual sliver of land and water into Singapore's territorial sea.

Since 1979, we had been trying to ask the Malaysians to explain to us, 'On what basis did you make this claim?' And they haven't done so. But at the Court in September, I informed the court that this is a spurious claim, not because I say so, but because Malaysia has entered two binding treaties with Singapore, 1927 and 1995, which defined the maritime boundary in the Straits of Johor between Malaysia and Singapore. And Point 20, which is the claim made by Malaysia, lies to the south and to the east of the 1927 and 1995 boundaries. I asked Malaysia, on what basis then do you make a claim for territory inside Singapore's side of the two boundaries which bind you? So I think it's a frivolous claim.

Q: The court found in Singapore's favour. As Singapore continues to grow, do you foresee any future need for international arbitration?

Prof Koh: Let me just explain what the Court's finding was and was not. The proceeding in Hamburg was not a proceeding on the merit of the case. The proceeding in Hamburg was in the nature of an emergency proceeding. Malaysia went to the Court in Hamburg and alleged that the matter is urgent, and you must ask Singapore to stop its reclamation works both at Tekong and Tuas pending the constitution of the arbitration tribunal, under Annex VII of the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty. So it's a plea for an emergency relief. But it's very difficult to win such an emergency proceeding because Malaysia has to prove urgency, that the matter is really urgent; Malaysia has to prove that Singapore has done serious damage to the marine environment; Malaysia has to prove that Singapore's reclamation has done damage to Malaysia's interests which are irreparable by compensation. And the Court found that Malaysia had not satisfied these criteria, and therefore, Malaysia did not get the Court to order Singapore to stop our reclamation works. But this is not the end of the story because this is only the first round.

The second round is that Malaysia and Singapore will be meeting in November to try to come to an agreement on the appointment of a group of independent experts to do a one-year-long study to investigate whether or not Singapore's land reclamation works have done any harm either to the environment or to Malaysia. That's Phase Two. Then, there's a third phase: which is for the merit of this case to be sent to a five-member arbitral tribunal. The five-member arbitral tribunal has been constituted on 9 Oct 03. We will have to decide in Kuala Lumpur next month whether that arbitral tribunal should proceed with its work, or whether it should wait for the completion of the study by the group of experts.

Q: So how concerned are you about future arbitration? Let me put it this way: How do you think this issue of reclamation will affect future relations between Singapore and Malaysia?

Prof Koh: It is unfortunately not an isolated case. We have several legal disputes. We have a dispute over an island called Pedra Branca, and that is already sent to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. The oral hearing of the case between us would be probably fixed in 2005.

Let me put it this way: Singapore's preference, which is also my personal preference, is that differences between Malaysia and Singapore be settled amicably, through consultation and negotiation. I believe that given goodwill on both sides, and a spirit of mutual accommodation, all problems between us can be settled amicably, without going to arbitration or adjudication.

But, if we are not able to settle our differences through consultation and arbitration, then of course I prefer that they be settled peacefully through mediation, arbitration or adjudication than by violent means.

I want to make one more point. I want to make a point to my brothers and sisters in Malaysia: that the destinies of our two countries are intertwined. And more than that, there are many common interests that unite us, and the areas of our divergence is relatively small compared to the areas of convergence. So I ask my Malaysian friends: Why focus so much of your energy, my energy, on our negative agenda? Why don't we grow the positive agenda?

Q: Just to round up. Because Singapore has this constant need to grow, it will inevitably be an issue ...

Prof Koh: No, not at all. Why should it be? My whole case to my neighbours, north, south, east, west, is: have sympathy; unlike Malaysia, we are only one-five-hundredth of your size. We are smaller than many mega cities in Asia. And yet, within this very limited space, we have built a high quality of life for our three million citizens and one million non-Singaporeans who live with us. We have no choice but to reclaim land from the sea. But we will always do so within our territorial limits. And we will be conscientious in ensuring that we don't ruin the marine environment, and we don't impinge on any of their rights. If you perceive any problem, let us know. If there's a problem, we will take mitigation action. So I want them to sympathise and support, not to feel threatened by Singapore's land reclamation.

Q: Are you getting that support?

Prof Koh: Yes, even from my Malaysian friends. I was very happy to hear from them in open court in Hamburg that Malaysia is not against Singapore reclaiming land, and it understands that Singapore has no alternative but to do so in order to create space for its people.

Q: Thank you.

Prof Koh: My pleasure.

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