Singapore—The contentious water issue between Singapore and Malaysia was discussed in Parliament on Monday (March 2), during the Committee of Supply (COS) debate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
Opposition leader Pritam Singh, the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party (WP), addressed Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, asking for an update on bilateral issues, specifically the one concerning water.
Mr Pritam said that the issue of the price of water would not die down any time soon, particularly due to “various Malaysian states have already charged more for raw water to their own fellow Malaysians”.
Malaysia would also naturally out the interest of its own citizens first, should the water reserve threshold of Johor drop. Mr Pritam said, “Such developments and the matter of greater water insecurity in Malaysia is likely to bring the headline figure we purchase raw water from Johor for three cents for every 1,000 gallons in the political spotlight more so than ever before.”
The WP leader added that the issue could be managed beneficially for both countries, given Singapore’s experience in water treatment and waste management, and reduce the possibility of tension between the neighbouring countries.
He asked Dr Balakrishnan whether or not there is “scope for greater cooperation between Singapore and Malaysia in this regard”.
In response, the Foreign Affairs Minister repeated the stand of the Singaporean government that Malaysia lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.
Malaysia, he said, has long known this. “We have told Malaysia this as early as 2002 when Singapore last negotiated with Malaysia on water as part of a package deal. Malaysia cannot unilaterally revise the price of water. Our legal position remains unchanged,” added Dr Balakrishnan.
And while newly-resigned Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad brought the issue up to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2018 and last year, and even made proposals for a new price for raw water, the Government has given consideration to these proposals “in the spirit of bilateral cooperation, but without prejudice to our position that Malaysia has lost the right of review,” he added.
Dr Balakrishnan himself discussed the issue with Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, in December 2019 and January 2020. Datuk Saifuddin is Malaysia’s Foreign Minister.
The Singaporean Government made it clear that a price review of raw water Singapore buys would also mean a price review for the treated water that Johor buys back.
Dr Balakrishnan added that the Singaporean Government has also “been concerned for a very long time about the yield and quality of the water from the Johor River.”
PM Lee discussed the quality of water in Johor not only with Dr Mahathir but with his predecessor, Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Malaysia’s newly-minted Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, also played a part in negotiations on the issue in the past, something that Dr Balakrishnan said Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had just told him.
The Foreign Affairs Minister added, “If Johor is unable to fulfill its obligations to provide us with 250 million gallons of raw water as stipulated by the Water Agreement, this will have grave consequences. It would undermine the sanctity of the 1962 Water Agreement, it will severely damage our bilateral relationship. Members will recall that the 1962 Water Agreement is guaranteed by Malaysia as part of the Separation Agreement in 1965, and this is the sacred document on which we draw our independence.”
Negotiations with Malaysia, he said, will go on. But if an “amicable outcome” cannot be reached via negotiations, “Singapore is prepared to resolve them through arbitration on terms mutually agreed to by both countries. This is like how we have successfully resolved other bilateral issues in the past. This is what PM Lee and Tun Mahathir agreed at the 9th Leaders’ Retreat in April last year.” —/TISG