Singapore – During his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate on Friday, March 1, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called out Dr. Mahathir’s comments on the 1962 Water Agreement as “strong, emotive words no doubt intended to rouse public opinion.”
Member of Parliament Vikram Nair brought up the recent bilateral issues between Malaysia and Singapore concerning the 1962 Water Agreement. Mr. Nair, who is also the chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs, noted that efforts had been taken to make Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia more constructive.
Although, just yesterday, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at a meeting with Johor state government officials was “encouraging the people of Johor to protest against the current water deal, to say it is unfair and that Singapore is a rich country and should be more generous,” Mr. Nair said. He asked Dr. Balakrishnan to comment on the remarks made by Dr. Mahathir.
The Foreign Affairs Minister replied by first expounding on what the Malaysian Prime Minister said; how Singapore as a rich nation could pay such an unreasonable rate for raw water under the 1962 Water Agreement when Malaysia was, in the words of Dr. Mahathir, “a poorer country by GDP per capita” which was “morally wrong.”
Dr. Balakrishnan expressed how those were strong, emotive words no doubt intended to rouse public opinion.
“Mr. Chairman, I’m supposed to be diplomatic, but I think members of this House also know I call a spade a spade. This is a red herring. The 1962 Water Agreement is not about who is richer or poorer. It is about the fundamental principle of respecting the sanctity of agreements,” he said.
He mentioned how the agreement has always been clear and consistent. In 1962, when it was signed, Malaysia was an independent country with its own leadership, legal advice, and consciously entered into the agreement. In 1965, when Singapore was ejected from the Federation of Malaysia, Singapore took the precaution of ensuring that the 1962 Water Agreement was guaranteed by both governments.
“Any breach of the 1962 water agreement will call into question the Separation Agreement. This separation agreement is the basis for our existence as an independent sovereign state,” said Dr. Balakrishnan. “Therefore, Malaysia and Singapore must fully honour the terms of the 1962 Water Agreement. Including the price of water stipulated in it. Neither of the parties can unilaterally change the terms of the agreement.”
He recalled that Dr. Mahathir himself acknowledged not to seek a review in 1987 because they benefited from the pricing arrangement under the initial Water Agreement. Dr. Mahathis, who was also the Prime Minister at that time, knew that any revision would affect the price of treated water sold by Singapore to Malaysia.
“Our obligation under the 1962 water agreement is to sell five million gallons per day. But, actually, today, as we speak, we are selling around 16 million gallons per day. And we are selling it at a fraction of the cost of treating that water. In other words, for every gallon, we are subsidising,” said Dr. Balakrishnan.
“We also receive requests to sell additional supplies of treated water to Johor. From January 2 to 4 of this year, Singapore supplied an additional six million gallons per day of treated water, over and above the 16 million gallons due to a disruption caused by pollution in Johor’s water plants,” he added.
Water projects in Johor
Dr. Balakrishnan went on to mention that in 1990, an agreement was signed by Singapore’s water agency PUB and Johor to construct the Linggui Dam to increase the return of the Johor River. Although Johor owns the dam, Singapore paid more than S$300 million for the construction and operational costs incurred by the project. In addition to this, compensation was paid for the use of land of the Linggiu Reservoir and the potential loss of revenue from logging activities. Another one-time payment was paid for the lease of said land for the remaining tenure of the 1962 Water Agreement.
Dr. Balakrishnan said, “If Malaysia had exercised the right to review the price of water in 1987, Singapore might well have made different investment decisions on developing the Johor River,” noting how Singapore has invested over S$1 billion on water projects in Johor.
This has helped not only Singapore’s PUB waterworks but also Johor’s waterworks by being able to draw water from the same river reliably.
In periods of dry weather, much like the current season, Singapore continues to supply Johor with treated water upon their request, and “we do so out of goodwill, without prejudice to our legal rights under the Water Agreement,” said Dr. Balakrishnan.
Singapore and Malaysia are permanent neighbours, “and we want to be good neighbours. We have never shied away from dealing with difficult bilateral issues,” he said.
This relationship of the two countries is the reason why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed to Dr. Mahathir last November 2018 for the Attorney-Generals of Singapore and Malaysia to meet and better understand the position of each party and whether or not Malaysia still had the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.
The Attorney-Generals did meet in December, but their discussions were overshadowed by the Johor Bahru Port Limits and Seletar Instrument Landing System procedures issues, “issues that we are now trying to resolve,” said Dr. Balakrishnan. “Nevertheless, the two Attorneys-General will continue their discussions in due time,” he added.
He noted how Singapore has chosen a different path in terms of development and has adopted a unique fundamental philosophy of governance since the Separation in 1965.
“Singapore has no natural resources. We’re even short of water. But, Singaporeans have long internalised that no one owes us a living. We have provided a framework where all our citizens strive to do our best and achieve our potential by dint of our efforts. We take a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption. Our Government plans and invests for the long term, as exemplified by this budget that we are debating right now.
“We honour and fulfil our international agreements and commitments,” said the Foreign Affairs Minister.
Dr. Balakrishnan ended his speech by saying, “I will let Members of the House and fellow Singaporeans outside decide for yourselves whether we have been ‘fair’ or, to quote Dr. Mahathir, whether we have been ‘morally wrong.’”
“I think the answer is obvious.”
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