SINGAPORE: The Attorneys-General of Singapore and Malaysia met in December last year for water talks, but the discussions were "overshadowed" by new maritime and airspace issues, said a spokesperson from Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on Tuesday (Feb 19).
MFA's comments were made in response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, after Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said earlier in the day that negotiations on the review of the price of raw water supplied by Malaysia to Singapore had started last month.
“Discussions on the water agreement between Malaysia and Singapore have already started. We have eight matters up for negotiations with Singapore and the water agreement is one of them," Mr Saifuddin had told reporters in Malaysia.
Mr Saifuddin added that the talks were being held between Attorney-General Tommy Thomas and his Singaporean counterpart and that several meetings would take place.
The foreign minister said it was still too early to draw any conclusions, but the fact that negotiations have started was a step forward.
MFA said in its statement that the meeting between the two Attorneys-General came after the prime ministers of both countries expressed their willingness in November last year for officials to have further discussions, so as to better understand each other’s positions on the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement
"The Attorneys-General of both countries subsequently met in December 2018, but their discussions were overshadowed by the new issues that had arisen over the Johor Bahru Port Limits and the Seletar Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures,” the MFA spokesperson said.
It was reported earlier that Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam and Attorney-General Lucien Wong had met with Mr Thomas over an ongoing maritime dispute on Dec 7.
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.
Last year, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticised the price of raw water to Singapore, saying it is "ridiculous" and that he planned to negotiate a review of the terms.
READ: Exclusive: Price of water sold to Singapore 'ridiculous'; Malaysia to renegotiate deal, says Mahathir
Over the weekend, Dr Mahathir said Mr Saifuddin would head the Malaysian delegation on the water talks.
“We are of the view that the price of 3 sen for 1,000 gallons of raw water was decided in 1926," Dr Mahathir said.
"At that time, the value of 1 sen could buy a lot of goods, but now with 1 sen we can’t buy anything, even with 3 sen we can’t buy anything."
Last month, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament that the water agreement is sacrosanct, as it remains “one of the key appendices” to Singapore’s declaration of independence.
“That’s why it is sacrosanct. But even beyond independence, it is a foundational principle of Singapore's operating system, that we fully honour all agreements that we enter into,” he said.
Dr Balakrishnan also pointed out that Singapore has gone above and beyond the agreement, by for instance providing Malaysia with 16 mgd of treated water daily, more than the 5 mgd stipulated in the agreement.
“We do not do it because of an imposition from the water agreement, we do it out of goodwill, and … we hope this goodwill will be reciprocated.”