Water price review still hangs in the balance

by ALIFAH ZAINUDDIN / pic by BLOOMBERG

DISAGREEMENTS over Malaysia’s right to review the price of raw water sold to Singapore remain unresolved, with the respective Attorney Generals now tasked to talk over the differing positions and seek an amicable solution, including the possibility of international arbitration.

Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his counterpart Lee Hsien Loong noted the opposing opinions expressed during the Ninth Malaysia-Singapore Leaders’ Retreat yesterday on the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Johore River Water Agreement.

Lee said while he understands Dr Mahathir’s political necessity to “press hard” on the water price review, he hoped that the 93-year-old would see Singapore’s interest in that the agreement is a fundamental founding document for the island nation.

“This was an agreement reached between the two water authorities between Singapore and the Johor water departments in 1962, and subsequently guaranteed by the two governments at the federal level and Singapore, at the national level, in 1965 in the separation agreement.

“It’s a fundamental founding document for us and we have to go according to this document. It is a basic term on which the two countries decided to manage our relationship,” Lee said at a joint press conference at Perdana Putra yesterday.

Dr Mahathir, who always took a hardline stance towards Singapore during his initial 22-year tenure, have always viewed the price tag as unreasonable. Under the 1962 agreement, which expires in 2061, Singapore is entitled to draw up to 250 million gallons a day of raw water from the Johor River at three sen per 1,000 gallons.

Between 1998 and 2003, Malaysia and Singapore had engaged through a series of letters and four-eyed meetings to revise the price of water sold to Singapore. Contrary to popular belief, the city state was then open to reviewing the water price.

In an 85-page booklet issued by Singapore’s Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, letters exchanged between the two countries showed Singapore’s readiness to pay a higher fee for water if there could be give-and-take on other issues.

However, talks of these bundled deals fizzled just before the end of Dr Mahathir’s first term as PM.

This time, leading the country under the Pakatan Harapan banner, Dr Mahathir once again wants to restart negotiations on the price tag.

The leaders noted both sides’ interest to identify appropriate and timely measures, including schemes to increase the yield of the Johor River and to safeguard its environmental conditions and water quality, to the extent required by the 1962 Agreement.

“One of the items we also have to talk about is the security of the supply of the water from Johor, including pollution and the yield to make sure that Singapore is able to get 250 million gallons a day, which is what was specified under the water agreement.

“So, on that basis, the ministers will talk. I think to ask me what is the reasonable water price now is to prejudge the question,” Lee said, responding to a question on what he thinks is a fair price.

On a separate development, Dr Mahathir insisted that Malaysia will repeal the AntiFake News Act 2018 amid Singapore’s recent proposal to implement fake news laws to fight “online falsehoods”.

The PM said he is worried that governments could abuse such laws. “When we have a law that prevents people from airing their views, then we are afraid that the government itself may abuse the law.

“The government itself may create fake news to sustain themselves. It (fake news) is difficult to handle, but we believe we can accept the challenges.”

Lee, however, insisted that his government’s proposed fake news laws — which include powers for ministers to order retractions from social media sites — are a “step forward” to combat a serious problem.