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Amid burning land, water and air issues, “Singapore and Malaysia will always be close neighbours” – Balakrishnan

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Win-win solutions the aim as already complex air and sea traffic on both sides of the Causeway is set to increase.

In response to Sembawang GRC Vikram Nair’s query regarding the state of Singapore and Malaysia’s bilateral relations, Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan astutely quipped that while piercing issues inevitably crop up periodically between the two countries, “Singapore and Malaysia will always be close neighbors” and because of that, Singapore is ready, and willing to work together with Malaysia in a spirit of goodwill and cooperation.

While his optimism is apparent in saying that the two countries’ relationship is now on a more secure foothold, Dr Balakrishnan admits that there is still “so much work to be done.”

Water issues

According to the foreign affairs minister, the two countries are in serious deliberations over their conflicting views regarding the legal right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.

“While Malaysia is apparently most concerned about the price of raw water, this issue cannot be viewed in isolation,” he adds, explaining this by using two scenarios.

The first scenario involves both the revision of the price of raw water sold by Malaysia to Singapore and the price of treated water that Singapore sells to the Malaysian southern state of Johor. The second scenario talks of the many pollution incidents that have impacted the Johor River and the long-term yield of the river.

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Since 2017, there have been seven pollution incidents along the Johor River causing the Public Utilities Board’s (PUB) Johor River Waterworks plant to be temporarily shut down.

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Johor has also built at least two water treatment plants which are upstream of the PUB’s waterworks plant. Together with Singapore’s facility, they draw more than the Johor River can yield on a sustainable basis, Dr Balakrishnan says.

“These issues, if not addressed, will compromise Singapore’s right to extract our full 250 million gallons a day entitlement of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.

“They will also affect the water supply for Johor’s own growing needs and action needs to be taken expeditiously to avoid a potentially more intractable issue in the future. This is a problem which is clear and present and we can see it looming,” he added.

The minister also said officials from both countries will follow up by identifying measures to increase the yield from the river, safeguarding its environmental conditions and the quality of its water.

Air matters

Talks to implement the Global Positioning Satellite-based instrument approach procedures at Singapore’s Seletar Airport will soon dominate the matter of the two countries’ airspace disputes.

Last month, both sides agreed that Singapore would withdraw the Instrument Landing System procedures which it had planned to implement at Seletar, while Malaysia would suspend its restricted area in the airspace over Pasir Gudang, Johor.

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Dr Balakrishnan likewise discussed Malaysia’s intention to review the existing arrangements of Singapore providing air traffic services over southern peninsula Malaysia.

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In 1974, both countries inked an agreement to operationalise this arrangement. This was based on decisions reached at the 1973 Asia-Pacific Regional Air Navigation meeting held under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

“Any proposal to change the current arrangements must also be in accordance with ICAO standards, processes and procedures and the 1973 decision,” Dr Balakrishnan says.

“Our utmost priority must be to achieve the highest standards of safety and efficiency in civil aviation operations, given that the airspace arrangements in our region are very complex and will get only more complex in the future as our air traffic continues to grow.

“Discussions on the review of the 1974 operational letter of agreement will involve consultations with many regional and global stakeholders. This will take time, it cannot be rushed,” he noted.

Land concerns

When it comes to pressing questions about land, Dr Balakrishnan believes the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System and the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) are “mutually beneficial projects that will significantly ease congestion, facilitate business and tourism, and bring the people of Malaysia and Singapore closer together.”

Singapore is now considering Malaysia’s proposal to suspend the RTS project for six months from April 1, 2019, and both sides are working out the details of a supplemental agreement to effect the suspension, he adds.

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As for the HSR project, the two countries signed a deal in September last year to suspend it until May 31, 2020.

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“The ball is now in their court and we hope that Malaysia will find a way forward in the projects within the period of suspension that they have requested,” he told the House.

Marine setbacks

Dr Balakrishnan says Malaysia and Singapore have suspended their overlapping port limits, going back to the port limits in place before Oct 25 and Dec 6, 2018. Malaysian government vessels are no longer anchored in the area, he told the House.

Both countries will start negotiations, and a committee co-chaired by the Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry and the Secretary-General of the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry will soon converge, he says.

“What is important is that we continue to keep the channels of communication open, we discuss these issues in a calm and constructive way on the basis of equality and mutual respect, we honour our international agreements fully and we find amicable win-win solutions in accordance with international law,” Dr Balakrishnan stresses.

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