Pritam Singh says water price issue with M'sia a potential source of strain on relations, Vivian Balakrishnan responds

New Malaysia prime minister, new talks?

Sulaiman Daud | Kayla Wong | March 02, 2020, 07:09 PM

The issue of water price with Malaysia has once again been brought to the forefront during this year's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Committee of Supply (COS) debate on Monday, March 2.

The price of raw water that Singapore buys from Malaysia has been a sticking point in the two countries' bilateral relations for the past decades, with the issue gaining prominence again under former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's leadership after a lull period.

Pritam Singh: Price of water is an issue that is not going away any time soon

Raising the issue to Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh said the matter is a "genie that is not going back into its bottle anytime soon", especially so since "various Malaysian states have already charged more for raw water to their own fellow Malaysians".

He then raised a few examples to support his point, such as Perak offering to sell its treated water to Penang at 70 cents per 1,000 litres, while the river that Penang draws water from can only cater to its demand until 2025.

In addition, in light of Johor's water reserve threshold dropping to zero in time to come, senior leaders in Johor have alluded that "Malaysia would have to look after the interests of Malaysians first", Pritam added.

"Such developments and the matter of greater water insecurity in Malaysia is likely to bring the headline figure we purchase raw water from Johor for three cents for every 1,000 gallons in the political spotlight more so than ever before," he said.

Pritam Singh: Low price of treated water sold to Malaysia likely to be a footnote

He added that despite Singapore in turn locking the low price of treated water sold around 11 cents per 1,000 litres, and supplying more water to Malaysia than required under the existing water agreement, such facts are likely to "remain a footnote".

Potential scope for cooperation so water doesn't become a potential source of strain

Nevertheless, he suggested that Singapore's experience in water collection treatment supply and waste management, as well as rising water security issues in Malaysia, provide an opportunity for both countries to reduce the prospect of the water agreement as "a potential source of strain" for bilateral relations.

And as for Singapore, water from Malaysia is cheaper to treat than desalinated water, he added.

He ended his cut by asking if there is "scope for greater cooperation between Singapore and Malaysia in this regard".

Malaysia lost the chance to review water price under 1962 Water Agreement

Responding to Pritam, Vivian repeated the government's stance on the matter, and said Singapore position is that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.

"We have told Malaysia this, as early as 2002, when Singapore last negotiated with Malaysia on water as part of the package deal," he said.

"Malaysia cannot unilaterally revise the price of water," he added.

"Our legal position remains unchanged."

Singapore willing to listen to and discuss with Malaysia without prejudice to its own position

Vivian then said that then-Prime Minister Mahathir had raised the issue with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on "several occasions", and expressed his desire to revise the price of raw water sold to Singapore.

He said: "In the spirit of bilateral cooperation, but without prejudice to our position that Malaysia has lost the right of review, we have been willing to listen to and discuss Malaysia's proposals, on the basis that there is a balance of benefits for both sides."

He added that over two meetings with then-Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in December 2019 and January 2020, Singapore has made its stance 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.

Singapore concerned about yield and quality of water from Johor River

In addition, Vivian said both Singapore and Malaysia must discuss the yield and quality of the water from the Johor River.

This is so as to ensure that Singapore can continue to draw its entitlement of 250mgd of raw water under the 1962 Water Agreement for the remaining 41 years of the agreement, he said.

The issue of yield and quality of the water from Johor River is a concern of the Singapore government, Vivian said.

For instance, he said the water that the two Malaysia-built water treatment plants has abstracted, in addition to Singapore's entitlement of 250mgd, has caused the total abstraction from the Johor River to exceed its sustainable yield.

Coupled with "several pollution incidents in the Johor River", these developments have forced Singapore's Johor River Waterworks to shut down temporarily on multiple occasions, he said.

Singapore raised such concerns with Malaysia

Vivian also said Singapore has raised these concerns with "successive prime ministers of Malaysia on many occasions".

For instance, PM Lee has raised them with Najib Razak, as well as Mahathir, when they were prime minister.

He said that the 1990 Water Agreement, which is a supplement to the 1962 Water Agreement, was the result of prolonged negotiations between Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir, adding that Muhyiddin played a key role as then-Menteri Besar of Johor.

Such progress led to the construction of the Linggiu Reservoir that was completed in 1993 to ensure Singapore's sustainable abstraction of the 250 mgd of raw water from the Johor River that it is entitled to.

More needs to be done

Vivian acknowledged that Johor's economy and population is growing, and with it, their water needs.

He noted that Johor has had to recently impose water rationing and buy additional treated water from Singapore.

If steps aren't taken to protect the Johor River and prevent pollution, dry weather conditions could place us in a serious situation, he said.

If Johor cannot supply Singapore with the 250mgd of water as stipulated under the 1962 Water Agreement, then it could undermine the sanctity of the Separation Agreement, which guarantees the Water Agreement, Vivian added.

Singapore willing to share cost

Vivian said that Singapore is willing to hold discussions with Malaysia related to the 1962 Water Agreement.

Without prejudice to Singapore's legal position, Singapore is willing to discuss the possibility of sharing the cost for:

  • Pollution-control measures for the Johor River
  • Schemes to increase the yield of the river

This would benefit both sides.

He added that Singapore is negotiating these issues in good faith.

However, if an amiable outcome cannot be reached, Singapore is prepared to resolve the issues through arbitration, on mutually-agreed terms.

No single issue should colour overall positive relationship with Malaysia

Vivian ended his speech by saying water is simply one issue out of many bilateral areas of cooperation with Malaysia.

Both countries must not allow any single issue to colour the overall positive and multi-faceted relationship, he said.

He added that the Singapore government hopes that when the newly sworn-in Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin's Cabinet is formed, both countries will be able to "pick up where [they] left off and continue [their] discussions on the outstanding important matters, including water".

Top image adapted via CNA