Singapore, Malaysia must work together to solve bilateral issues

Ever since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad reassumed office as Malaysian Prime Minister in May, he has revived tensions with Singapore that are reminiscent of the mood during his first stint as prime minister.

He initially cancelled, and later decided on postponing, the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project. He has also dredged up the long-running debate about the Singapore-Malaysia water deal that dates back to 1962 (Malaysia PM Mahathir Mohamad wants to raise price of raw water sold to Singapore by more than 10 times; ST Online, Aug 14).

The water deal has been one of the most contentious items in recent bilateral relations between the two countries. Former Singapore foreign ministers S. Jayakumar and K. Shanmugam had said, in 2003 and 2014 respectively, that neither Malaysia nor Singapore can unilaterally change the price of water specified in the water agreement.

This position was recently reaffirmed by present Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament in July.

The 1961 and 1962 water agreements provided for a price review after 25 years. This would have been in 1986 for the former and in 1987 for the latter. Malaysia chose not to do so then and, therefore, lost its right to review the price of water.

Furthermore, these water agreements were guaranteed by the Malaysian government in the Separation Agreement.

Since Singapore is a sovereign, albeit small, country, relations with its closest neighbours are vital for its security and national interests.

These ties have to be maintained and nurtured at all levels by the governments and citizens of both countries.

The Singapore Government should continue to engage Kuala Lumpur with the view to deepen bilateral cooperation as it has a long-term stake in each other's success.

Malaysia's new government should assuage distrust, not ignite it with its rhetoric, and should pursue common goals instead of targeting Singapore.

Both countries must have a long-term perspective when issues such as those over the water and HSR deals arise.

Finding a mutually satisfactorysolution to these issues will take time, but it can happen only if both sides take sincere steps towards it together, with mutual respect, trust and transparency.

Sattar Bawany (Professor)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2018, with the headline 'Singapore, Malaysia must work together to solve bilateral issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe