Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Tun Mahathir Mohamad insists that he is not against Singapore, and that he is only fighting for the best interests of his nation.
This is especially so in relation to one specific issue: the price of water that Singapore buys from Malaysia.
Dr Mahathir told the South China Morning Post that he is “Not anti-Singapore. I claim to be pro-Malaysia.”
He said this when asked to comment on the perception of many people in Singapore that hold him personally responsible for souring of the relationship between the two countries.
As opposed to the friendly ties enjoyed between the two nations when former Prime Minister Najib Razak was in power, relations between Singapore and Malaysia has hit some difficult notes since the end of last year.
There have been tensions over territorial disputes both concerning maritime and airspace boundaries, as well the oft-recurring theme of the price of water, among others.
To some, this may feel like history repeating itself, as the tensions are vaguely reminiscent of Dr Mahathir’s first term as Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003.
Of all the issues between the two nations, the biggest thorn in the Prime Minister’s side is perhaps the one concerning water, specifically how much, or rather, how little, Singapore pays for water from Malaysia, which is 3 Malaysian sen per thousand gallons of water. The price has remained the same for five decades now.
Dr Mahathir has accused Singapore of profiteering, given the number of years that the price has remained unchanged. He says this price has stayed as is since the 1920s and is part of an agreement between Johor, the southern Malaysian state supplying water to Singapore, as well as the former colonizers of the region.
This claim has been refuted by Singapore, with the counter-argument that during colonial times water was actually free, save for rental fees for catchment areas and waterworks.
Furthermore, Singaporean authorities also said that this price is fixed, due to Malaysia’s choice not to negotiate it in 1987, when the agreement reached its halfway mark of twenty-five years. “The 1961 and 1962 agreements provided for a price review after 25 years, with arbitration being the agreed course of action if bilateral price negotiations failed.”
And, neither was a new price reached from 1998 through 2003, when bilateral talks were held.
The Malaysian Prime Minister told the Post last week that he would remain resolute in his opinion about the price of water. “I have to look at the interest of Malaysia. Can you find any country selling 1,000 gallons of water at 3 sens, something, a price that was fixed way back in 1926? What was sold at 3 sen in 1926 which is sold at 3 sen now?”
The water agreement that set the price for water sold from Malaysia to Singapore was actually set not in 1926, but in 1961 and 1962, wherein “Singapore was to pay an annual rent of RM5 per acre for the land and a charge of 3 sen for every 1,000 gallons of raw water it drew.
Singapore also agreed to provide Johor with a daily supply of treated water up to 12 percent of the raw water it drew, subject to a minimum of four million gallons (18,184 cu m), and at a price of 50 cents per 1,000 gallons.
If the 12 percent provided by Singapore was insufficient, Johor could request for more treated water to be supplied.” The 1927 agreement had been declared void by the later ones.
But Dr Mahathir also disagreed on the assertion that it was too late to negotiate water prices at this time. “We are entitled to renegotiate the price after twenty-five years … but what Singapore says [is] that because twenty-five years have passed, therefore you have lost your right to negotiate. How can that be? It says after twenty-five years, not at twenty-five years you must negotiate.”
He pointed out that other states pay a higher price for water from Johor than Singapore does. “What we are saying is, it is ridiculous that the state of Johor sells water to the state of Malacca at 50 sen per thousand gallons and yet sells at 3 sen to Singapore.”
He also brought up that Singapore is a wealthy country. “And we all know that Singapore is a developed country, it is a very rich country. Its currency is three times higher than our currency, although before they were the same. And yet they are asking a poorer country to subsidise their economy and their growth.”
When asked whether the price of water was the most pressing issue between the two nations, the Prime Minister replied, “There are also other issues of course. But to say that this is unusual, unfair or unjust is ridiculous. There is no place in the world where water is sold by one entity to another, or petroleum is sold to other countries at a price that was fixed in 1926.”
Dr Mahathir’s first round of arguments with Singapore over the water issue was with former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the 2000s.
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