Thinking Aloud

Feeling the heat after drying up of 'water is precious' message

There can be no let-up in long struggle to break out of the water vulnerability S'poreans once bemoaned


"Potong, potong, potong."

Led by then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Umno hotheads chanted this cry to cut, cut, cut water supplies to Singapore at a rally in Johor Baru, right on the Republic's doorstep.

That was in 1998.

Here's how a neutral observer reported the incident in Britain's Independent newspaper on Aug 8 that year: "Gripped by a severe economic recession, mortified by a bungled opening of the new international airport, confronted by mounting anger over water shortages in the capital, and facing deep divisions in the ruling party, Malaysia's prime minister badly needs an issue to unite the nation.


"Fortunately for him, the issue lies close at hand and can always be relied upon to stir passion in Malaysia. That issue is Singapore."

Malaysia's "abrasive leader", the paper continued, had told crowds at the rally that "Malaysia's nature is to be good to all... but don't take for granted our good nature".

How did we go from the high level of public consciousness on the water issue, and a national eagerness to tackle it decisively in the late 1990s, to the present angst and anger over the impending water price hike? Indeed, it might be asked, why were prices left untouched for 17 years, even as demand for the precious resource continued to shoot up, and with it, the investments needed to prevent the hard- earned sense of water security from drying up.

The crowd responded eagerly with cries of "cut, cut, cut", meaning they wanted Malaysia to cut off the water supplies on which Singapore is totally dependent for its survival.

Singapore's response? A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official was quoted as saying laconically: "We have lived with this for many years."


Indeed we had. So much so that it began to grate, and many Singaporeans began to yearn for something to be done to break out of the country's heavy reliance on its neighbour for such a critical resource.

At the time, I wrote a column on the issue, which was headlined "Big thirst for water solution", arguing that the day had come for the Government to take the plunge and invest heavily in building desalination plants.

It read: "Cost, it seems, rather than the lack of know-how, is the reason the authorities chose to proceed with caution. Apart from the initial investment, it is estimated that the cost of producing a cubic metre of desalinated water is $3 to $3.50, about seven or eight times the cost of treating freshwater now.

"Assuming that Singapore's water demand stays at the current 270 million gallons per day (mgd) and domestic supply remains at 150 mgd, four of such distillation plants will be needed to make up the remaining 120 mgd. This would cost a total of $4 billion.

"Yet, this is less than the $5 billion being spent to build the North-East MRT line or the planned underground road system, and a quarter of the $20 billion set aside for the Housing Board's Main Upgrading Programme to spruce up older HDB estates.

"Indeed, if Singapore could invest millions to develop and pioneer technology for its Electronic Road Pricing system to ensure that highways in the land-scarce country remain unclogged, why baulk at spending to develop the means to overcome its lack of an even more critical resource - water?"

Many readers seemed to agree, going by the number who wrote in to our Forum pages, some suggesting solutions and others, invoking that famous John F. Kennedy line, insisting that the country stood ready to "pay any price, or bear any burden" to free itself from having to live with the unremitting threats from politicians up north.

Thankfully, Singapore pressed ahead, not only with desalination - the first plant to purify sea water was embarked on soon afterwards and completed in 2005 - but also by harnessing the technology to reclaim used water in 2003.

The latter, dubbed Newater, proved to be a trump card in the Republic's interminable negotiations with Malaysia for new sources of water to meet Singapore's future needs.

Indeed, as my colleague Dominic Nathan wrote in this newspaper in 2003: "Although PUB has never revealed the price of Newater, it has said that it is 50 to 60 per cent cheaper than desalted water. This means that if Malaysia is serious about wanting to return to the negotiating table, it will have to do better than Dr Mahathir's March 4 offer of about RM10 per thousand gallons for treated water, or around $1 per cubic m.

"Singapore's cards are now on the table. And if Malaysian leaders were under the impression that the gamble on Newater was a bluff, they now know that it is the ace in Singapore's royal flush."

In other words, through sheer wit and will, Singapore had not only shaken off its water vulnerability but turned adversity to advantage through the development of its water technology. You can read more on this amazing water journey in our Insight special on water on pages B4 to B6.

So, what happened? How did we go from the high level of public consciousness on the water issue, and a national eagerness to tackle it decisively in the late 1990s, to the present angst and anger over the impending water price hike?

Indeed, it might be asked, why were prices left untouched for 17 years, even as demand for the precious resource continued to shoot up, and with it, the investments needed to prevent the hard- earned sense of water security from drying up.

Why did we let up on efforts to keep drumming home the "water is a precious, strategic resource" message, including through the use of proper pricing to reflect its value?

To be fair, political leaders did touch on this from time to time, posting photos of declining water levels in Johor's Linggui reservoir online and warning about the impact this might have on Singapore. But these efforts, alas, failed to make much of a splash.

Perhaps there were other more pressing challenges - the Sars crisis of 2003, the 2008 financial meltdown, the 2011 General Election setback for the ruling party, the bust-up over immigration in 2013 - which focused minds elsewhere, and made any notion of raising water prices seem foolhardy?

Or, did we grow complacent, falling for the rather over-hyped notion that the existential issue of dependence on Malaysia for water had been "solved" by Singaporean ingenuity.

Hopefully not, for that would have been delusional, as even with Singapore's much trumpeted "four taps" - rain, imported water, desalination and Newater - the Republic remains dependent on Malaysia for the lion's share of our water supply. And that's not even mentioning the likely growth in future water demand or the need to prepare for 2061, when the second water pact with Malaysia runs out.

Indeed, even while water prices were kept constant since 2000, demand continued to surge, from 270 mgd in the late 1990s to 430 mgd today, with this expected to almost double by 2060.

And, as more of our water is likely to come from desalination and recycling, both highly energy-intensive, the overall cost of water will inevitably rise too.

So, most adult Singaporeans know that, like it or not, these costs will have to be borne, one way or the other - through tariffs or taxes - and the only mitigation possible is to ensure that the most well-off pay a bigger share, while those most in need are given the greatest help to cope with the cost.

Yet, who can blame the public for being perturbed by the sudden announcement of a hefty 30 per cent hike after the long hiatus in discussions about water pricing and conservation?

In contrast, recent weeks have seen a deluge of information on the billions that the authorities have been spending to build and maintain Singapore's water infrastructure over the years.

But, alas, coming as it did after public anger had flared up on the issue, has left officials swimming against the tide with what seemed to many like post-facto justifications.

Contrast this with the approach taken by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in signalling that taxes will have to rise as government spending continues to mount, or Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan alluding to how public transport fares will eventually have to go up.

They have sounded the alarm early, promised wide consultation and begun the long process of getting the necessary buy-in from the public for these unpopular but inevitable moves.

There is indeed never a good time to raise the prices of essential services. But experience has shown that the way to minimise the angst is to give people as much information on the need for the increase up front, and where possible, spread out the rise in small doses over the years. Successive Cost Review Committees have said as much.

Beyond this, on an issue as sensitive as water, a constant drip-feed on the relentless struggle required to ensure sufficient supplies, both for today and tomorrow, is needed.

Doing so will help make clear to everyone that cries of "potong" simply cut no ice with Singaporeans - past or present - who remain resolved to do whatever it takes to secure this precious necessity.

A lesson in water conservation

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Feeling the heat after drying up of 'water is precious' message'. Subscribe