Singapore confident of 'constructive, mutually beneficial relationship' with Malaysia under new PM Muhyiddin: Balakrishnan
SINGAPORE: Singapore is confident that it will continue to have a “constructive, mutually beneficial relationship” with Malaysia under its new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said on Monday (Mar 2).
Congratulating Mr Muhyiddin on his appointment, Dr Balakrishnan said he looked forward to the formation of his Cabinet.
“We know many of the personalities in his potential Cabinet, from our prolonged engagements over the decades, and we wish them sincerely all the very best,” he said during the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Committee of Supply debate on Monday.
Mr Muhyiddin was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister on Sunday, following a week of political upheaval.
Dr Balakrishnan noted Singapore’s “long-standing and broad-ranging relations” with Malaysia, and said the country had worked with successive Malaysian governments for the mutual benefit of both countries.
“We are confident we will continue to have a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship with Malaysia, and look forward to resuming discussions on ongoing issues and projects,” he said.
He noted projects such as the Singapore-Johor Bahru Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link and the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail (HSR) had been delayed following the election of the previous Pakatan Harapan administration in May 2018.
While Singapore could have enforced its legal rights and sought full compensation from Malaysia, it chose instead to suspend both projects through formal agreements and give its neighbour time to review its position and propose amendments in the spirit of “constructive bilateral cooperation”.
Dr Balakrishnan said that such projects cannot be "suspended indefinitely", and a decision must be made as to whether they will proceed.
He added that he hopes to hear from Malaysia about both projects in the coming months. He also noted that he two countries have had constructive discussions on maritime boundary delimitation, as well as cooperation in other areas such as tackling the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
When asked by Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh about the 1962 Water Agreement, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore has been willing to listen to and discuss Malaysia’s proposals on the basis of mutual benefit, while maintaining its legal position that Malaysia has lost the right to unilaterally revise the price of water.
“I have, in fact, had some preliminary discussions over the past couple of months, over two meetings with my then-Malaysian counterpart Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah,” said Dr Balakrishnan, adding the meetings were in December last year and January this year.
“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 added.
“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.”
The building of two major water treatment plants upstream of Singapore’s Johor River Waterworks has resulted in the total abstraction of water exceeding the river’s sustainable yield, said Dr Balakrishnan.
This, in addition to several pollution incidents affecting the Johor River, have forced Singapore’s Johor River Waterworks to shut down temporarily on multiple occasions, he added.
These concerns have been raised with successive Malaysian prime ministers, including Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamad, on numerous occasions, he noted.
Several measures have been taken to protect the Johor River over the years, Dr Balakrishnan said.
He added that the Linggiu Reservoir had been constructed in 1993 to ensure the sustainable abstraction of Singapore’s entitlement of raw water from the Johor River, following the 1990 Water Agreement.
Meanwhile, Malaysia built a barrage along the Johor River at Kota Tinggi to keep out seawater, which would affect the abstraction of water.
“But let me be frank, much more needs to be done, and to be done urgently. Johor’s own water needs are increasing as its economy and as its population grow,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
Johor’s own water supplies have run short from time to time, resulting in the state having to impose water rationing and buying additional treated water from Singapore’s water agency PUB, he noted.
“In fact, during periods of drought there have been occasions when they have bought more than four times their entitlement because they needed the additional water,” he said.
“Even in normal times they buy more than three times their entitlement under the water agreement,” he said, noting that PUB has provided Johor with this additional treated water at the same price of 50 cents per gallon out of goodwill.
This illustrates the interdependence between the two countries and how the existing arrangements are of mutual benefit to both sides.
Steps must be taken to protect the Johor River from pollution, enhance the yield of the river and to manage the total amount of water being drawn from the river, he said.
Without such measures, both countries could end up in a “very difficult situation” down the road, especially in the case of dry weather conditions, he added.
There could be “grave consequences” if Johor is unable to fulfil its obligations to provide Singapore with 250 million gallons of raw water per day as stipulated under the 1962 Water Agreement, said Dr Balakrishnan.
“It would undermine the sanctity of the 1962 Water Agreement and it will severely damage our bilateral relationship,” he said, noting the agreement is guaranteed by Malaysia as part of the 1965 Separation Agreement.
Singapore is prepared to discuss these matters with Malaysia to head off such an eventuality, “without prejudice to our legal position”, he said.
“We are even willing to discuss the possibility of Singapore sharing the cost of pollution control measures, and new schemes to increase the yield of the Johor River, since this is important for both sides,” he said.
“We are therefore negotiating with Malaysia on these issues in good faith, to explore a practical, durable and mutually beneficial solution for both sides."
“If, despite our best efforts, Singapore and Malaysia are unable to reach an amicable outcome on these issues through negotiations, Singapore is prepared to resolve them through arbitration, on terms mutually agreed to by both countries,” he added, noting that other bilateral issues had been successfully resolved in the past.
“Ultimately, water is but one issue out of many bilateral areas of cooperation. We must not allow any single issue to colour the overall positive and multi-faceted relationship,” said Dr Balakrishnan, adding the two countries should look ahead to see how they can cooperate and resolve issues “for the benefit of future generations”.
“We therefore hope that when Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s Cabinet is formed, we will be able to pick up where we left off and continue our discussions on the outstanding important matters, including water.”