Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's meeting with his Malaysian counterpart, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at their Leaders' Retreat on Tuesday helped to clear the air, given that bilateral relations have been under omninous grey clouds lately. The retreat was significant because it was the first with the Pakatan Harapan government since it came to power in May last year. Essentially, the meeting addressed contentious issues upfront and did not pretend that they were somehow not crucial. There was no firm resolution on all that was outstanding, but that would have been too much to expect of a single-day summit. What is significant is that both sides presented their positions clearly and firmly. Without it, differences become entrenched, and can embitter people on both sides.
Instead, friendly gestures, such as Dr Mahathir readily accepting Mr Lee's invitation to attend the Republic's bicentennial celebrations at this year's National Day Parade in August, are a reaffirmation of the historical, economic and social ties which bind the two independent nations. Admittedly, differences remain, but some progress is being made in resolving them. It was announced that Singapore and Malaysia will begin negotiations to delimit their maritime boundaries in a month, as both countries have implemented measures to de-escalate the situation at sea. This is an important development since territorial issues can deflect ties between any two countries as almost no other area of contention can. The exception to that general rule, in the case of Singapore and Malaysia, is water. The 1962 Water Agreement is an existential document by which both countries are obliged to abide. Indeed, the agreement was guaranteed by both governments in the 1965 Separation Agreement. Thus, altering the 1962 document poses a very high hurdle, as should be expected. Nevertheless, the attorneys-general of the two countries will continue their dialogue, and understand each other's perspectives and concerns on the price of raw water sold to Singapore under the 1962 agreement.