A country’s size, culture matter in its approach to international law


Just as China may distrust Eurocentric rules, smaller states may want the added safety of laws
In September 2003, I found myself in the German city of Hamburg for a significant event in Singapore’s legal history – the city state’s first appearance before an international court.

Unhappy with Singapore’s reclamation works off Tuas and at Pulau Tekong, Malaysia had launched legal proceedings against its neighbour, as provided for by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos. This action, known as compulsory dispute settlement, was similar to that taken by the Philippines against China over the South China Sea. One difference was that while China refused to participate, Singapore took part and took pains to argue its case.

A three-day hearing was scheduled at short notice because Kuala Lumpur sought a stop-work order. I was one of two journalists sent to Hamburg to report on it; the other was from Malaysia.