SINGAPORE: Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday (Mar 1) described Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s recent comments on the 1962 Water Agreement as “strong, emotive words” that were intended to rouse public opinion.
Speaking in Parliament during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate, Dr Balakrishnan said that this was a “red herring”. "I'm supposed to be diplomatic but I think members of this house also know that I call a spade a spade," he said.
“The 1962 Water Agreement is not about who is richer or poorer," Dr Balakrishnan added. "It is about the fundamental principle of respecting the sanctity of agreements."
Dr Balakrishnan was responding to a question from Member of Parliament Vikram Nair, who is also chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs.
Mr Nair noted that both Dr Balakrishnan and Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman had spoken in parliament about the efforts taken to make Singapore's relationship with Malaysia more constructive.
"But just yesterday, there were remarks by Dr Mahathir at a meeting with Johor state government officials, saying that he is in fact encouraging the people of Johor to protest against the current water deal, to say it’s unfair and Singapore is a rich country and should be more generous," Mr Nair noted, as he asked Dr Balakrishnan to comment on the remarks.
On Thursday, Dr Mahathir had urged the Johor government and its people to speak out on what he described as the “morally wrong” water deal with Singapore.
In addressing the Johor state leaders’ retreat in Putrajaya, Dr Mahathir had asked how Singapore, as “a rich nation” could pay “such an unreasonable rate” for raw water sold by Malaysia under the 1962 Water Agreement when Malaysia was a poorer country by GDP per capita.
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 meanwhile 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 their request, Singapore's water agency PUB had said.
"In 1962 when this agreement was signed, Malaysia was an independent country," said Dr Balakrishnan. "They had their own leadership, they had their own legal advice and they entered into this agreement in 1962."
"In 1965, when Singapore was ejected from the Federation of Malaysia, we took the precaution of ensuring that the 1962 Water Agreement was guaranteed by the governments of both Malaysia and Singapore," Dr Balakrishnan added. "It forms in effect part of our 1965 Separation Agreement."
"Any breach of the 1962 Water Agreement would call into question the Separation Agreement, and this Separation Agreement is the basis of our existence of an independent sovereign state.
"Therefore, Malaysia and Singapore must fully honour the terms of the 1962 Water Agreement, including the price of water stipulated in it," he said.
"Our longstanding position is that neither Malaysia nor Singapore can unilaterally change the terms of this agreement between our two countries."
MORE THAN S$1 BILLION SPENT ON WATER PROJECTS IN JOHOR
Dr Balakrishnan noted that in 1990, during Dr Mahathir’s first prime ministership, PUB and Johor had signed an agreement to construct the Linggiu Dam to increase the yield of the Johor River.
Johor owns the Linggiu Dam, but Singapore, he said, paid more than S$300 million for its construction and operational costs, as well as compensation for the land used for the Linggiu Reservoir, the potential loss of revenue from logging activities, and as a one-time payment of the lease of that land for the remaining tenure of the 1962 Water Agreement.
“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,” he said, pointing out that overall, Singapore has so far spent more than S$1 billion on water projects in Johor.
He said that this has helped to ensure that not only PUB’s waterworks, but Johor’s own waterworks can reliably draw water from the Johor River.
"In this period of dry weather, Singapore continues to provide Johor additional treated water upon their request," he said.
"We do so out of goodwill, without prejudice to our legal rights under the Water Agreement. "
WE HAVE NEVER SHIED AWAY FROM DIFFICULT ISSUES
Dr Balakrishnan said that 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.
He explained that this is why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed to Dr Mahathir in November 2018 that both Attorneys-General meet to better understand each other’s positions on whether Malaysia still had the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.
While the Attorneys-General met in December 2018, their discussions were overshadowed by two issues - the Johor Bahru Port Limits and Seletar Instrument Landing System procedures.
“Nevertheless, the two Attorneys-General will continue their discussions in due time,” he said.
“Since Separation in 1965, Singapore has chosen a different and unique fundamental philosophy of governance, and quite frankly, we've taken a different path of development,” he added.
“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 honour and fulfil our international agreements and commitments.
"As a result of that, businesses have the confidence to invest and grow in Singapore and we make sure that we invest in infrastructure ahead of time.” he said.
“I will let Members of the House and fellow Singaporeans decide for yourselves whether we have been ‘fair’ or, quote/unquote, ‘morally wrong’,” the minister added.
"I think the answer is obvious."