First it was China, then Malaysia, and now it is Indonesia. Why do countries like to take what rightfully belongs to Singapore?

It took 2 months before China returned the 9 Terrex military vehicles to us, after some political sabre rattling from the Chinese.

And following that, it was Malaysia who is now trying to reclaim what had already been deemed to be Singapore’s – the Pedra Branca island. The dispute took 38 years to be finally resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2008, but the Malaysians earlier this year filed an application with the ICJ to reverse that judgement and to declare that the island in fact belongs to Malaysia. Singapore, of course, has said it will fight the Malaysian’s application vigorously.

Now, it is Indonesia which has detained a Singaporean boatman since last August and refusing to release him.

Singapore, to its credit, has dealt with all three incidences calmly, and rationally. Two of the issues have been resolved either through quiet negotiation or via the legal route. In both instances, what rightfully belonged to Singapore was returned to us.

In the ongoing Indonesian case, boat captain Ricky Tan, along with nine other Singaporean passengers and his three Indonesian crew, were stopped and arrested by Indonesian patrol off the Riau islands on 20 August 2016.

The Indonesians accused the boat of allegedly trespassing and the crew and passengers, who were mainly recreational anglers, fishing illegally in waters about 7.5 nautical miles from the coast of Tanjung Berakit in Bintan.

“The boat was fishing in Indonesian waters without a permit,” Tanjung Pinang Navy commander First Adm. S. Irawan said to the media then. “The violations are pretty clear.”

“We are committed to giving harsh punishment to boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesia by sinking them,” he added.

The boat, named Seven Seas Conqueress, was reported to have port clearance from Singapore, and had a registration certificate from Langkawi in Malaysia.

The arrest came at a time when Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, announced plans to beef up the country’s fisheries sector, and the Indonesian navy had pledged tougher enforcement against illegal fishing.

The Singapore Government, for its part, had not said much about the incident, until 15 March this year when it issued a statement on the matter.

Apparently, the Government had done so out of frustration at the slow progress on the case, and after Mr Tan was finally charged in Indonesia, 7 months after he was arrested.

According to news reports, the charges against Mr Tan were “for entering Indonesian waters without permission, and failing to maintain navigational equipment on board his boat, which is required under Indonesian shipping laws.”

For the first time, the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said the crew and the passengers were detained by the Indonesians “within Singapore Territorial Waters off Pedra Branca.”

“Nine Singaporean passengers were released on 1 September 2016,” the MFA said.  “However, Singaporean captain Ricky Tan Poh Hui, and the vessel, remain in Indonesian custody.”

The MFA said it “has strongly protested the Indonesian Government’s actions.”

It added:

 “We have emphasised that there is no basis for Indonesia’s detention of the vessel, its crew and passengers, nor for the continued detention of and purported charges brought against Mr Tan in the Tanjung Pinang District Court.

“In addition, Singapore officials have communicated repeatedly with the relevant Indonesian authorities, at both the national and provincial level, to seek the immediate release of Mr Tan and the vessel, as well as the termination of any purported investigations against him.”

Indonesia had also denied any consular access to Mr Tan until 24 January this year after repeated requests, the MFA said.

“MFA will persist in our efforts to secure the immediate release of Mr Tan and the vessel,” the Singapore side said.

While the MFA did not elaborate or provide evidence that the boat and the passengers were indeed within Singapore’s territorial waters, the silence from the Indonesians is disconcerting, to say the least.

Despite the protest and demands from the Singapore Government for Indonesia to drop the charges against Mr Tan and to release him immediately, the case will continue in the courts next week.

It is an interesting case to watch because, among other things, it is rare for the Singapore Government to issue such strongly worded demands to a neighbouring country. It is also not often that the Government here stands up for one of its citizens so strongly.

Will the Singapore Government offer expert witnesses during the court hearings to prove that Mr Tan and his boat were within Singapore’s territorial waters, as the MFA says, and thus did not do anything wrong?

Or will Mr Tan be found guilty but be given a light sentence and be allowed to return to Singapore?

It is good to see the Singapore Government stand up for Mr Tan who, apparently, had no ill intentions in bringing his passengers on a fishing trip.

We can expect the Singapore Government to deal firmly, if quietly, behind the scenes to obtain the quick return of our fellow Singaporean, just as it did with the Terrexes and with Pedra Branca.

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