Singapore offers alternatives in water agreement talks

The city-state is reluctant to review the pricing modality, while Malaysia has remained steadfast in its quest for a revision

by P PREM KUMAR & DASHVEENJIT KAUR / pic by ISMAIL CHE RUS

THE long-standing water supply dispute between Malaysia and Singapore is expected to be met with a positive breakthrough, with the island republic offering a few options on the negotiation table.

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (picture) said the Singaporean government has proposed several new options to avoid Malaysia’s attempt to review the price of raw water supplied by Johor, as stipulated under the 1962 Johor River Water Agreement.

Save for the revision of raw water selling price at three sen per 1,000 gallons, Singapore has signalled its willingness to, among others, increase the supply of treated raw water to Johor.

In an exclusive interview with The Malaysian Reserve, Saifuddin said Singapore is still reluctant to review the pricing modality, while Malaysia has remained steadfast in its quest for a revision of the price, which Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad described as “too costly” and “manifestly ridiculous” compared to the current economic environment.

Dr Mahathir’s claim has been rejected repeatedly by Singapore officials who suggested that Putrajaya had lost the rights to review the price of water in 1987.

“I think we (Malaysia) want to try and get the price modality. It may take some time, (but) it cannot take that long,” he said.

Saifuddin said as far as Malaysia is concerned, the country has entered the second phase of negotiations, with the first phase being an effort to convince Singapore to agree on negotiations for the disputed water agreement.

“For us, the second phase is about price modality (to which) they (Singapore) have indicated that it is very difficult for them to review the price, but they are giving other options like the supply of treated water in Johor and so on.

“I can’t really speak on their behalf, but all I am trying to say is that they don’t seem to agree that we are looking at the price modality, but maybe there are other things that we can discuss. That is basically Singapore’s position,” said Saifuddin.

Under the agreement signed in September 1962 which will expire in 2061, Singapore may draw 250 million gallons of raw water from Sungai Johor daily at three sen per 1,000 gallons.

In return, Johor is entitled to receive a daily supply of up to five million gallons of treated water, or 2% of the water supplied to Singapore, at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons.

Dr Mahathir has repeatedly expressed that Malaysia is selling water to Singapore at too low a price and that it should be raised.

The matter was also raised during the recent working visit of Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong, which saw the leaders concurring to proceed for “mutually agreed” arbitration if both countries fail to reach a consensus during negotiations.

Saifuddin said the fact that Singapore has agreed to negotiate the water agreement now is already a success for the Pakatan Harapan government, taking into account the island state’s earlier disagreement on any form of negotiations at the initial stage.

He said the second phase of negotiations will involve two layers. The first will be between the attorneys general of both countries before the discussion is taken over by Wisma Putra secretary general and Singapore’s foreign affairs permanent secretary.

Saifuddin said he has been in constant communication with his Singaporean counterpart Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, with the water agreement negotiation remaining a key discussion point.

Saifuddin is confident that the water agreement can be reviewed in the next four years before the Pakatan Harapan government’s current mandate ends in 2023.

“Well, it took us less than one year to convince them (Singapore) to come to the negotiation table. So, I think we can (conclude the negotiations by 2023).”