Surely, it’s time to rename the South China Sea? Especially since an arbitral tribunal in Holland has just decided that China has “no historical rights” to the sea named after that country?

It’s like the battle to stake claims on food. For example, it’s ridiculous to rebrand Hainanese chicken rice as Singapore chicken rice when “we” all know the best version is Ipoh chicken rice!

But a sea is a far more fluid and tumultuous question, especially when six countries (China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and us, Malaysia) claim all or part of it. Vietnam calls this aquatic area “Bien Dong”, or the “East Sea”, reflecting its relative geographical position to it. The Filipinos used to name it “Dagat Timog Tsina” (in Tagalog) while Malaysia still refers to it as “Laut China Selatan” (in Malay). Both terms mean the same thing, namely: “South China Sea”.

Perhaps conscious of the subconscious historical recognition a name confers, on Sept 5, 2012, it was declared: “Now, therefore, I, Benigno S. Aquino III, President of the Philippines do hereby order the maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago are hereby named as the West Philippine Sea.” (Administrative Order No. 29, s. 2012)

Wahliaww, so like dat ah?

OK, as a good, patriotic Malaysian, I am thinking, hmm, why don’t we also “hereby order” and “hereby name” the place as, say, the “North Borneo Sea”? But whoops, Indonesia and Brunei are also part of the huge island of Borneo, so we may lose some exclusive property rights.

What about the “North Sabah Sarawak Sea” then? Or even grander, “Lautan Samudra Sabah Sarawak”? Righto old chap, that has a jolly ring of alliteration doesn’t it?

The word samudra (which means “confluence of waters” or “ocean”) comes from the deep Sanskrit roots of the Malay language. In addition, it alludes to the historical achievements of ancient Malay sailors from Srivijaya and Malacca who went as far as China, India and even Madagascar.

What’s the big deal over a name? In today’s world of branding, it’s crucial. After all, we call it Proton Perdana, even though it’s a rebadged Honda Accord; or Naza 206 Bestari rather than Peugeot 206.

I’m proud to say I did my small bit years ago to stake Malaysia’s claim to a corner of the disputed Spratly Islands (smack in the middle of this sea) – by scuba diving there.

This was at Pulau Layang-Layang, some 300km north-west of Kota Kinabalu. It was formerly identified as Swallow Reef but we cleverly call it after the Malay word for “swallows” (as in, the birds). Our navy has maintained a presence here since 1983 while a dive resort came up later.

However, other countries also want this little island. China labels it as Danwan Jiao, Vietnam tags it as Da Hoa Lau and the Philippines has dubbed it Celerio, making it sound as if there’s loads of celery growing there. We see the same pattern worldwide.

Britain’s Falkland islands are called Malvinas by Argentina (the two countries fought a war in 1982 over it) while the indigenous Maoris of New Zealand identify their homeland as Aotearoa.

Vietnam has named the South China Sea as the 'East Sea' while the Philippines calls it the 'West Philippines Sea'. Here Filipino and Vietnamese activists are in a strange coalition pushing for their claims during a demonstration in Manila. Photo: AFP

Vietnam has named the South China Sea as the ‘East Sea’ while the Philippines calls it the ‘West Philippines Sea’. Here Filipino and Vietnamese activists are in a strange coalition pushing for their claims during a demonstration in Manila. Photo: AFP

Closer to home, what Malaysia labels as Pulau Batu Puteh is designated by Singapore with its old Portuguese name of Pedro Branca – both terms mean “white rock”.

So, should we go with the name “Lautan Samudra Sabah Sarawak”? The only objection I can hear, apart from the hissing abbreviation (LSSS), is that it doesn’t quite cover the sea off Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and eastern Johor.

However, since we are the only country straddling both sides of these disputed waters, we have a huge advantage over the other five claimants (which are just on one side or another of it). Thus, the perfect name could well be “Lautan Maha Malaysia”! But whoa whoa, hold on. Might that be getting a wee bit too self-important, even grandiloquent?

We’re not a great power, and the last thing we want is to provoke others against us.

So let’s be more modest and community-minded.

Hmmm, anyone game for “The South-East Asian Sea”?

Yet some would say its common abbreviation – The S.E.A. Sea – may induce some seasickness.

A name of similar meaning in Malay – “Laut Asia Tenggara” – definitely has more punch to it. But since Bahasa Malaysia is not the lingua franca of South-East Asia, that name would imply that we are trying to be the regional taikor (big brother) making a backhanded claim via linguistic hegemony.

A more “brotherly” name should be in English, since it’s the de facto common language of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or Asean. It’s also neutral because English “belongs” to no member state in particular. Thus, surely the best choice for a renaming should be “The Asean Sea”.

Oh joy! This glorious grouping will finally dismiss the critics’ carping that Asean is “just a talk shop” which doesn’t achieve much. We will finally have a Sea in S.E.A. that we can proudly call our own!

This area is rich in fisheries, petroleum and crucial shipping routes – what a better way to announce the region’s shared arrival on the world stage!

But sadly, this happy fantasy would be a sea change from real life because Asean itself is split over this issue. Only four member states have a stake in these disputed waters. As for the others, Cambodia and Laos are deemed to be “China-friendly” or “pro-Beijing”.

Last month, an Asean statement on the issue at the China-Asean meeting in Kunming had to be retracted hours after being published. That embarrassing episode suggests a perfect name reflecting Asean disunity: “No Eye Sea”. Its Cantonese equivalent – mou ngan tai – means that we’re rather tired of looking at this dispute.

Hopefully, the rival claims can be negotiated to a peaceful settlement while non-Asian powers adopt a “Sea No Touch” attitude.

In the meantime, I guess the rest of us will “Look Sea Look Sea” or just simply “Sea How La”.


Andrew Sia prefers the strong flavours of Teh Tarik over insipid English tea anytime, anyday.