M'sia foreign minister accuses S'pore foreign minister of 'hitting below the belt'

Both sides are free to speak freely.

Belmont Lay | March 13, 2019, 01:18 AM

Malaysia's foreign affairs minister is upset

Malaysia’s foreign affairs minister Saifuddin Abdullah has slammed comments made by Singapore's foreign affairs minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Saifuddin took issue with Vivian's recent comments in Singapore parliament on March 1 in response to Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister.

What did Saifuddin say?

Saifuddin said Vivian's criticisms on Malaysia's bid to review the 1962 Water Agreement were "reckless".

Where did Saifuddin issue this latest statement?

Saifuddin said in the Malaysia Parliament on Tuesday, March 12: "First, he accused Malaysia of not respecting the 1962 agreement by saying we can no longer review it after 25 years."

"So I don't understand what English is used by the Singaporean Foreign Minister to interpret it in such a manner."

Saifuddin was responding to a question on the terms of reference for the water agreement discussion.

He also characterised Vivian's comments as a low blow on Malaysia's governance: "That is a malicious accusation, it is hitting below the belt."

How did this latest trading of barbs occur

Mahathir had characterised Malaysia as a poorer country subsidising the cost of water for Singapore, which is a "rich nation" that is paying an “unreasonable rate” for water.

Vivian then rebutted Mahathir on March 1, during the debate on the Foreign Affairs ministry’s budget.

What did Vivian say?

Vivian said the 1962 Water Agreement is not about who is richer or poorer.

He then said Singapore has a zero-tolerance approach on corruption, and that Singapore and Malaysia “have chosen different fundamental philosophies of governance and taken different paths of development”.

He also said Singapore provided a “framework where all our citizens strive to do our best and can achieve their potential by the dint of our efforts”.

He added that Singapore honours its international agreements and commitments and that he would leave it to its citizens to decide whether the country had been “fair” or “morally wrong” in the pricing of water.

"It is about the fundamental principle of respecting the sanctity of agreements," Vivian added, saying that Mahathir had used “strong, emotive words, no doubt intended to rouse public opinion”.

What is Saifuddin's case?

Saifuddin maintained that the content of the agreement can be reviewed after 25 years, due to a clause in it.

He also worked out the subsidy Malaysia has given to Singapore.

This has amounted to a total of RM2.4 billion (S$800 million) as a result of selling raw water based on prices agreed upon in the 1960s.

This is about RM42 million a year, or RM100,000 a day, as a result of selling raw water to its neighbour since the agreement took effect.

Malaysia will review the agreement with Singapore again

Saifuddin said Malaysia and Singapore agreed to discuss reviewing the agreement when Mahathir visited Singapore in November 2018.

"Singapore's prime minister had agreed to discuss the matter, as such the attorneys-general of both countries met for the first discussion.

"My officers and I followed up so we are already on the second phase of discussion, looking at the price modality, the period and other related matters," said Saifuddin.

But first, Johor must be self-sufficient

Saifuddin said the government needs to ensure that the country has ample water supply before it takes any action.

This is especially so for Johor.

"We need to work on zero dependency on water from Singapore," he said.

"If they no longer want to negotiate, then we will bring it to the international arbitration and when we reach such a level, I hope the lawmakers here will give us the support to do so."

This was in response to another MP's question on what the Malaysian government would do should Singapore continue "to be adamant and not review the agreement".