Heated argument between Singaporean Oxford student and Dr. Mahathir regarding ongoing maritime disputes

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Photo: Facebook screengrab

Formed in 1823, the Oxford Union is one of Oxford University’s oldest societies and debate group. Recently, a not-so-friendly exchange of views occurred at the Oxford Union between Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir and Darrion Mohan, a student of the university.

Darrion Mohan, who uploaded a portion of his dialogue with Dr. Mahathir in his Facebook profile, started out by mentioning the controversy revolving around the Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian’s unannounced visit to a Malaysian vessel currently on disputed waters while claiming that he had the unofficial blessing of the foreign minister. But this was refuted by Wisma Putra himself and said that there was no blessing given and even advised the Johor Chief Minister to not go. Darrion proceeds to ask what actions the Malaysian PM would take against the Johor Menteri Basar if any measures would be implemented to ensure that this incident does not happen again. He also asks if Dr. Mahathir is in agreement that “actions such as these “contribute to the perception that the [Malaysian government] is pugnacious and acts in bad faith”. He quotes the words of Najib Razak of wanting “to return to the days of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric.”

Dr. Mahathir begins by questioning the student’s rights in making such assumptions based on his citizenship. He said that the student was welcome to use Najib Razak as a source but because Darrion is not a Malaysian citizen, he did not have the right to do so. The student replies by saying that he wasn’t choosing between Dr. Mahathir and Najib, he was simply quoting the latter’s point of view on the PM’s foreign policy. He reiterates his question by asking, “whether through the PM’s actions over the high-speed rail, the airspace, the maritime dispute, the crooked bridge, and the water price revision that he wanted to return to the fraught diplomatic ties with Singapore which was seen during the beginning of his tenure or if he wanted to go beyond that?”

The water issue

The Prime Minister avoided all the other points in the Darrion’s inquiry and chose to focus on the issue of water between Singapore and Malaysia and the 1962 Water Agreement which he deems unfair to Malaysia. Dr. Mahathir expresses his views on the unbalanced situation of Malaysia selling untreated water to Singapore at 3 sen per 1,000 gallons and buying treated water from Singapore at S$60 per 1,000 gallons.

The setup was based on the 1962 Water Agreement by the two countries but the PM says that it is unfair to Malaysia and was not allowed to make any revisions either. He proceeds to state some facts that anywhere in the world, the agreement is not a good deal because they selling for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons and buying at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons when the treatment is not expensive. The PM also mentions that in some cases in Singapore, the price was as high as S$60 per 1,000 gallons, which could be an error. “This is grossly unfair to Malaysia”, the PM adds. “It might be ok then but it is not ok now. We are different countries and we have to get back our money. For years, Singapore has benefited.”

Johor waters are “international waters”

Darrion masterfully steered the conversation back to his initial inquiry regarding the unofficial visit of the Johor Chief Minister, to which the PM replies, “Well, the Menteri Basar went without our permission and he thought it was Johor water that’s why he went there.” He says that the reaction to this incident is “quite severe as if you are going to war.” According to the Dr. Mahathir, those were neutral waters and the Menteri Besar “could go into international waters without Singapore sending warships to chase him away.”

Darrion was smart enough to pass on the mic to someone else even though he fundamentally disagreed because those waters were unclaimed and it was only until last year did Malaysia start declaring that it was their territory.

It was after the discussion that Darrion did some more research and double-checked the facts.

In his post below, he made a detailed report of what was said during the discussion and the clarifications he researched on:

Had a great exchange with Malaysian PM Tun Dr Mahathir at the Oxford Union, where I asked him about the ongoing maritime dispute between Singapore and Malaysia. Dr M responded that the 1962 Water Agreement is unfair to Malaysia. During our exchange, I understood his argument to mean that it was unfair for Malaysia to sell untreated water to Singapore at 3 sen per 1,000 gallons but buy treated water from Singapore at $60 per 1,000 gallons. Thinking that $60 per 1,000 gallons seemed strangely high, I subsequently double-checked this. It turns out that that Dr M was referring to the price at which Singapore's PUB sells water domestically (approximately RM 60 per 1,000 gallons). Singapore sells treated water to Johor at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons. Dr Mahathir thinks this is unfair but I disagree. Given that it costs Singapore RM 2.40 to treat 1,000 gallons of water, Singapore subsidises the water by RM 1.90 per 1,000 gallons. Johor sells this treated water to Malaysians at RM 3.95 per 1,000 gallons – meaning Johor earns a profit of RM 3.45 per 1,000 gallons.Dr M also noted that Singapore has bought water from Malaysia at a fixed price of 3 sen per 1,000 gallons since 1926, and that Singapore has stopped Malaysia from revising the price. This is also inaccurate. Singapore has purchased water at this price since 1962. Under the 1962 Water Agreement, Malaysia had the right to review the price in 1987 (when Dr M was PM). Malaysia chose not to do so.Furthermore, as Singapore's Foreign Minister noted in Parliament earlier this week, Singapore is obliged to sell Malaysia 5 million gallons per day (gpd) of treated water but out of goodwill supplies 16 million gpd. Two weeks ago, at Johor’s request, Singapore further increased the supply of subsidised water to 22 million gpd. In 2018, also at Johor’s request, Singapore supplied more than the usual 16 million gpd for 20 days. All the additional treated water has been supplied to Johor at the subsidised rate of 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, as per the 1962 Water Agreement. I hope that the Mahathir government reciprocates this spirit of goodwill demonstrated by Singapore and approaches negotiations over the airspace and maritime disputes with a constructive attitude. Finally, during our exchange, Dr M repeatedly referred to the disputed waters off Tuas as “international waters”. This contradicts previous statements from both Dr M [1] as well as the Malaysian Transport Minister [2], who stated that the disputed waters within the new Johor port limits are Malaysia’s territorial waters. Dr M’s concession that these are in fact international waters significantly undermines Malaysia’s initial claim.[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-malaysia-maritime-dispute-port-limits-timeline-11006762[2] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/survey-malaysia-singapore-border-mahathir-johor-port-limits-10999380NB: Re-posting as my initial post misinterpreted Dr M's argument about Singapore selling water for $60. Thanks Jarel for pointing this out.

Posted by Darrion Mohan on Friday, 18 January 2019

Online debate

The clash of perspectives was seen even in social media with both sides expressing their opinions. While others saw how ignorant and rude Darrion was during the debate, others disagreed.

On the actual post of Darrion, he received numerous praise such as:

Photo: Facebook screengrab
Photo: Facebook screengrab
Photo: Facebook screengrab