Kuala Lumpur—With water possibly the most contentious issue within bilateral relations, the Prime Ministers of Singapore and Malaysia said at their first Leaders’ Summit that they are willing to consider third-party arbitration as each side airs its views concerning the price of water that Malaysia sells to Singapore under an agreement drawn up in 1962.
According to PM Lee, the leaders have had many discussions “to turn things around gradually to bring them to where we are today.”
He said, “So we have, as TS Eliot says, we have come back to our starting place and we are recognising it for the first time.”
Dr Mahathir was similarly positive in his comments, expressing hope that Singapore and Malaysia could keep on “the momentum of positive engagements.”
For the water issue, which has not thus far found a resolution, unlike the airspace and maritime disputes, both Prime Ministers said they’ve asked their attorney general to present each country’s side.
They have agreed to explore “amicable solutions, including the possibility of dispute resolution through arbitration on a mutually agreed basis”.
At one point in the past, with Singapore saying it was ready for resolution via third-party arbitration, it was Dr Mahathir who balked at the suggestion. He has also said that should the two countries resort to this, Singapore would lose.
PM Lee expressed to his Malaysian counterpart that each country should “find a way forward that enables us to talk constructively about this issue and hopefully be able to make some progress.”
While he admitted to understanding Dr Mahathir’s point of view on the matter, as well as the “political necessity” for the Malaysian Prime Minister to urge for a revision in the water prices, he also asked Dr Mahathir to see things from the perspective of Singapore.
“I can understand Dr Mahathir’s perspective. I hope that he will be able to see Singapore’s perspective, why this is such a sacrosanct item,” said the Singaporean Prime Minister.
Dr Mahathir had said on Tuesday that the water price review ranks high on his government’s priority list.
On his part, PM Lee emphasized how The 1962 Water Agreement is a “fundamental founding document” for both countries.
He said, “It is a basic term on which the two countries decided to manage our relationship. If you look at it from that point of view, to be able to change that is a very high hurdle.”
The binding water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia is the 1962 Johor River Water Agreement that is valid until 2061. This agreement allows Singapore to get 250 million gallons of water every day from the Johor River at 3 sen per 1,000 gallons. Singapore sells treated water back to Johor at 50 sen per thousand gallons.
Malaysia had an opportunity to review the price of raw and treated water when the pact reached its 25-year mark in 1986 and 1987, but the country’s leaders had declined to do so.
Deeper issues than the price of water
For many Singaporeans, the water issue goes deeper than the money exchanged between the two nations. According to Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh in April 2002, “Any breach of the Water Agreements would also call into question the Separation Agreement, and undermine our very existence.”
Goh had been referring to the Independence of Singapore Agreement (also known as the Separation Agreement) signed between Singapore and Malaysia on August 9, 1965. This guaranteed the water agreements from 1961 and 1962, and registered it with the United Nations.
Later that year, Mahathir took a firm stance and told the press, “Well, international agreements have been broken before. I have seen people go to war, even which is not by agreement.”
The following year, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Jayakumar said in Parliament, “The 1961 and 1962 Water Agreements are … fundamental to our very existence as an independent nation. Neither Singapore nor Malaysia can unilaterally change them. This is the root of the dispute between us.
It is not a matter of money — the significance of the water price, to both countries, is Singapore’s existence as a sovereign nation separate from Malaysia, and the sanctity of the most solemn agreements which Singapore and Malaysia have entered into.”
By October 2003, Mahathir retired as Malaysia’s prime minister.
2018—Water issue revived
Shortly after returning to power in Malaysia when he won the General Election in May 2018, Mahathir began to call the 1962 Water Agreement “unfair” and even “unreasonable.” It has become an oft-repeated refrain with him.
In November he asked Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for discussions on the water issue to be again opened, to which PM Lee agreed./TISG
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