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Malaysia-Singapore talks on right to review water price will resume after COVID-19 pandemic: Putrajaya

Malaysia-Singapore talks on right to review water price will resume after COVID-19 pandemic: Putrajaya

Water pipes running along the Causeway between Singapore and Malaysia. (File photo: Jeremy Long)

KUALA LUMPUR: Talks between Malaysia and Singapore on the right to review the price of raw water will resume once the COVID-19 pandemic situation in both countries has "recovered completely", Malaysia’s Minister of Environment and Water Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man said on Tuesday (Sep 21).

In a written reply to a parliamentary question filed by Kuala Langat Member of Parliament Xaiver Jayakumar on what steps Putrajaya was taking to resolve the issue, the minister said: “The water issue between Malaysia and Singapore involves bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries.”

“Therefore, this matter is being coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he added. 

“However, Malaysia's stance on the issue to review water prices is very clear and consistent, in which Malaysia has and retains the right to revise the price of raw water it sells to Singapore as stipulated under the 1962 Johor River Water Agreement.” 

Mr Tuan Ibrahim also noted that both countries have been holding discussions on the issue since July 2018. He said officials had met on Dec 2, 2019 and Jan 30, 2020, to “discuss emerging issues relating to reviewing the price of raw water”. 

“Negotiations between the two governments on revising the price of water under the 1962 Johor River Water Agreement temporarily stopped due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions and negotiations will resume after the COVID-19 pandemic situation in Malaysia and Singapore have recovered completely,” he added.

Responding to CNA's queries, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said on Sep 23 that Singapore’s longstanding position is that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.

"Malaysia cannot unilaterally revise the price of water. Our legal position remains unchanged," an MFA spokesperson said. 

"Nevertheless, in the spirit of bilateral cooperation, but without prejudice to our position that Malaysia has lost the right to review, we have been willing to listen to and discuss Malaysia’s proposals, on the basis that there must be a balance of benefits for both sides." 

The spokesperson added that it has been made clear to Malaysia that any review of the price of raw water sold to Singapore will also mean a review of the price of treated water sold to Johor.

"Both sides must also discuss the yield and the quality of the water from the Johor River, so as to ensure that Singapore can continue to draw our entitlement of 250 mgd of raw water under the 1962 Water Agreement, for the remaining 40 years of the 1962 Water Agreement," the spokesperson said. 

The 1962 Water Agreement, which expires in 2061, entitles Singapore to draw up to 250 million gallons a day (mgd) of water from the Johor River.

Singapore pays 3 sen per thousand gallons of raw water and sells treated water back to Johor at 50 sen per thousand gallons, a fraction of the cost of treating the water.

Johor is entitled to a daily supply of treated water of up to 2 per cent or 5 mgd of the water supplied to Singapore. In practice, however, Singapore has been supplying 16 mgd of treated water to Johor at its request.

During a meeting between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on Nov 12, 2018, both sides had expressed their differing views on the right to review the price of water under the agreement.

On Mar 12, 2019, then Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah said that Malaysia will seek international arbitration if Singapore does not renegotiate the 1962 Water Agreement.

He added that before Putrajaya escalates the issue, it first needs to ensure that Johor state has ample water supply, in an effort to stop relying on Singapore for treated water.

A day later, Singapore's MFA said that Singapore has been "clear and consistent" in its position that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.

The Causeway at around 7am as dawn breaks on Mar 18, 2020. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

On Mar 14, 2019, Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Mr Saifuddin said during a press conference that the attorneys-general of both sides will continue discussions to "better understand each other’s position" on the right to review the price of water.

Dr Balakrishnan said at that time: “Both sides have differing views on the right to review the price of water ... Both of us have agreed that the attorneys-general of Malaysia and Singapore will continue their discussions to better understand each other’s position on the right to review the price of water.”

He told Singapore media later that day that there has been no agreement made on the right to review the water price. 

"There is only agreement to sit down, to explain, discuss and to appreciate each other's respective positions," Dr Balakrishnan said.

On his part, Mr Saifuddin said during the press conference that the discussions between the two attorneys-general will be “with a view of finding an amicable way forward”.

“We also reaffirm our commitment to resolve bilateral issues in a constructive manner and encourage ongoing diplomatic efforts to find amicable solutions for our mutual interest. This is of course in preserving the vital relationship between both countries and improving bilateral ties on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” he said.

"That is the underlying spirit of all of the discussions that we have had in the past and we will be having (in future)."

Mr Saifuddin was Malaysia’s foreign minister during the Pakatan Harapan administration under Dr Mahathir. He served as Minister of Communications and Multimedia under Mr Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration before being reappointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs under current prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. 

In March 2020, Dr Balakrishnan said that Singapore has been willing to listen to and discuss Malaysia’s proposals on the 1962 Water Agreement on the basis of mutual benefit, while maintaining its legal position that Malaysia has lost the right to unilaterally revise the price of water.

Dr Balakrishnan said at that time that he had held meetings with Mr Saifuddin in December 2019 and January 2020. 

“We have made it clear to Malaysia that any review of the price of raw water sold to Singapore will also mean a review of the price of treated water sold to Johor,” he said. 

He added then: “Both sides must also discuss the yield and quality of the water from the Johor River, so as to ensure that Singapore can continue to draw our entitlement of 250 million gallons per day of raw water under the 1962 Water Agreement, for the remaining 41 years of the Water Agreement.”

Source: CNA/am(aw)

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