PUTRAJAYA: The price of water being sold to Singapore is "ridiculous", and Malaysia will make a presentation to its neighbour on renegotiating the terms of the water supply deal, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday (Jun 25).
"I think it is manifestly ridiculous that we should sell water at 3 sen per thousand gallons. That was okay way back in the 1990s or 1930s. But now what can you buy with 3 sen? Nothing," the 92-year-old told Channel NewsAsia in an exclusive interview.
Earlier, Bloomberg had reported that Dr Mahathir intended to go back to the drawing board on the water accord, which is set to expire in 2061.
"We are studying the case properly and we’ll make a presentation," he told Channel NewsAsia.
The revival of the water issue comes on the back of Dr Mahathir's decision to scrap the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail project agreed upon by the previous Najib Razak administration.
Dr Mahathir had cited a need to reduce the country's debt and liabilities exceeding RM1 trillion (US$251 billion) as the reason for scrapping the deal. Singapore has, however, stated that it has not been informed of Malaysia's intent.
At the interview, Dr Mahathir was asked about his foreign policy decisions, and he conceded that Malaysia had yet to inform Singapore about its intentions on both issues.
"Sometimes we make public statements without actually finalising the process," he said. "When we want to make a decision we don't wait until we inform Singapore, we just say something. Of course they would want to know, and we will inform them in time."
Asked if there is any timeframe on when he's planning to inform Singapore, he said: "It's not so urgent."
Dr Mahathir repeated this during a press conference on Monday evening, when he was asked again if he would be speaking to Singapore on renegotiating the water deal.
"It's not urgent," he reiterated. "We have many other problems that we have to focus on".
At the same conference, he also confirmed that the water issue had not been discussed in Cabinet before he made his comments, but that he was "pressed to announce" the issue after being "asked by the press".
Earlier, Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister said any bilateral problems that may arise from these choices could be resolved.
"I think whether we like it or not, Singapore is our closest neighbour and we have a common history. Whether we like it or not, we have to live with each other," he said.
"There will be little problems, conflicts and all that, (but) we'll resolve them."
WATER AGREEMENT "SACROSANCT" TO SINGAPORE
In a response to Dr Mahathir's comments later on Monday, the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said both Malaysia and Singapore must "comply fully" with the provisions of the 1962 Water Agreement and the 1965 Separation Agreement.
"The 1962 Water Agreement is a fundamental agreement that was guaranteed by both governments in the 1965 Separation Agreement which was registered with the UN," a spokesperson said in a statement.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak in January had reaffirmed the importance of undertaking measures to ensure the reliable and adequate water supply from the Johore River as provided for in the 1962 Water Agreement.
In a joint statement issued after a Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat, both countries also affirmed the terms of the agreement, under which Singapore is given full and exclusive rights to draw up to a maximum of 250 million gallons (mgd) of water per day from the Johore River.
In return, Johor is entitled to buy treated water of the same volume as up to 2 per cent of the water extracted by Singapore on any given day, or about 5 mgd if Singapore draws its full entitlement of water from the Johor River.
In February this year, then-Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing said Singapore must ensure that it has an adequate supply of water by the 2050s, before the water agreement with Malaysia expires in 2061.
Under national water agency PUB’s masterplan, NEWater and desalination will meet 85 per cent of Singapore’s water demand by 2060. That is also when the total water demand is expected to double.
In a written Parliamentary reply to Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng in January 2017, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said the 1962 Water Agreement was "sacrosanct" to Singapore.
"It was guaranteed by both the Governments of Malaysia and Singapore under the 1965 Separation Agreement, which was deposited with the United Nations," he said.
In March 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said Singapore must be psychologically prepared to face water shortages if its reservoirs dry up and when the second water agreement with Malaysia ends in 2061.
At present, imported water meets half of Singapore’s water needs. But water levels in Johor’s Linggiu Reservoir are falling. There is also the danger of prolonged dry weather, Mr Teo said at the time.
To watch the full interview, tune in to Conversation With on Thursday (Jun 28) at 9.30pm (SIN/HK).
The water issue: What's at stake and how did we get here? Explore historical footage and documents in our interactive special: http://cna.asia/water