Are We Losing More Islands After Sipadan-Ligitan Dispute?


By: I Made Andi Arsana

On Jan. 19, reported that Indonesia’s Semakau Island had been claimed by Singapore. In Indonesia, news about island claims, sovereignty issues and international disputes easily attract more attention compared to other matters. Such issues are sexy content for the media to play with.

In response to that, the governor of Kepulauan Riau, H.M. Sani sent a letter to Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, for clarification. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs clarified that there was more than one island called Semakau and the one in question was in fact Singapore’s.

The issue came about because Semakau Island was depicted on an official Singaporean map, apparently the governor thought that the island depicted on the Singaporean map was Indonesia’s.

It is now clear that was not the case. Ramadhan Pohan, deputy chairman of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Commission I, also clarified the issue by providing comprehensive data obtained from both Indonesia and Singapore (, Jan. 22).

This case reminds us of another similar case in 2005 regarding Berhala Island.

It was found that Malaysia promoted Berhala Island as a tourist destination and some parties in Indonesia thought that the one promoted was Indonesia’s. In fact there are several islands called Berhala and the one promoted was Malaysia’s.

Lesson learned: Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are similar in many aspects, so it is not uncommon to have similarities even island names.

Now, enough with Semakau and Berhala: The most important question is “are we really losing more islands?” Is it really true that the case of Pulau Sipadan and Ligitan, which Indonesia lost in 2002, can happen to other islands?

The case of Sipadan and Ligitan is always cited whenever cases concerning sovereignty over islands are raised. Indonesia, with thousands of islands, is likely to face similar issues concerning island claims and even sovereignty disputes in the future. How are we required to anticipate these potential issues in the future?

First and foremost, it is important for us, citizens, and especially government officials, to know the geographic configuration of our country as well as other neighboring countries. It certainly is not nice to panic or to be confused about such a serious thing as sovereignty just because we do not know that other country shares island names.

Second, it is important to understand that the sovereignty of an island that has been officially part of one country’s territory cannot be taken over easily by other country through effective occupation.

The case of Sipadan and Ligitan is completely different. Malaysia won the case for the reason effective occupation because those islands were ownerless (terra nullius) when they were disputed by Indonesia and Malaysia.

Many people misunderstood, thinking that the two islands were once Indonesia’s and then taken over by Malaysia.

It was not the case. Indonesia and Malaysia claimed the islands and they did not manage to settle the dispute through negotiation so they brought the case before the International Court of Justice. The court then decided the case based on a principle called “effectivités” or effective occupation. It confirmed that Malaysia and its predecessor, Great Britain, had done a lot to the ownerless islands compared to Indonesia and its predecessor, the Netherlands, had done.

As a senior government official once said and I agree, Indonesia did not lose any islands it just failed to add two more. This might sound like a joke but the statement explains the situation nearly perfectly.

Third, it is important to take care of small islands — especially the outer ones. For an archipelagic country like Indonesia, those small outer islands are essential in defining baselines, the imaginary lines from which maritime areas are measured. It is worth noting that taking care of those islands should not be motivated by a phobic reason: Not to lose them.

We take care of small islands not because we are afraid that other countries will take them away from us but for the prosperity of people residing on or around the islands.

Sending a lot of people from the capital to hold a flag-raising ceremony on a small island might be a good idea but we should not forget that people residing in the island need more than just a-few-hours of happiness on Independence Day.

A flag-raising ceremony can certainly boost the spirit of nationalism but it will not solve the problems they are facing: Education, health, transportation, to name a few.

Fourth, it is a good idea to have a general understanding of cartography, how maps depict territory of countries. It is important to understand that the inclusion of an island belonging to country A in a national map of country B does not necessarily mean a sovereignty claim by country B. A complete Indonesian map, for example, may also show Singapore and other neighboring countries.

The use of color, tone, intensity and legend in particular will tell what a map really means by showing an object of territory.

So, are we losing more islands? As much as we should take care of small islands, we are not doing it merely to prevent other countries from claiming them.

We are doing it for more practical reason: Prosperity. So no, we are not losing more islands.


Footnote: This opinion article has been displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Wednesday, 30th January 2013; and in paper edition, it is available at page 6. Full original text is also available at: [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 30th January 2013].

The writer is a Lecturer at the Department of Geodetic Engineering UGM (Gadjah Mada University) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He is currently an Alison Sudradjat Award Scholar for research fellowship at the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong. The views expressed are his own.



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