Parliament: Ties with Malaysia more stable now but much work still ahead, says Vivian Balakrishnan

The flags of Malaysia and Singapore at a multi-purpose hall for a joint press conference at the Perdana Putra Building in Kuala Lumpur, on April 9, 2019.
The flags of Malaysia and Singapore at a multi-purpose hall for a joint press conference at the Perdana Putra Building in Kuala Lumpur, on April 9, 2019.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Relations with Malaysia are "now on a more stable footing but there is still much work to be done", Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament on Wednesday (May 8).

He also reiterated that Singapore is ready and willing to cooperate with Malaysia in a spirit of goodwill and neighbourliness as he gave an update on last month's Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat, when maritime, water, airspace and land transport matters were discussed.

He was replying to Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) who had asked about the state of bilateral relations after the meeting between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his counterpart Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Putrajaya.

Land connectivity

On land connectivity, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore believes the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link (RTS) and the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) are "mutually beneficial projects that will significantly ease congestion, facilitate business and tourism, and bring the people of Malaysia and Singapore closer together".

Singapore is now considering Malaysia's proposal to suspend the RTS project for six months from April 1, 2019, and both sides are working out the details of a supplemental agreement to effect the suspension, he added.

As for the HSR project, the two countries signed a deal in September last year to suspend it up till May 31, 2020.

"The ball is now in their court and we hope that Malaysia will find a way forward in the projects within the period of suspension that they have requested," he told the House.

 
 

Water

On the issue of water, Dr Balakrishnan said the countries' attorneys-general are having further discussions on the differing positions of both sides on the legal right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.

"While Malaysia is apparently most concerned about the price of raw water, this issue cannot be viewed in isolation," he added, and spelt out two situations.

First, if there is any revision in the price of raw water, it is obvious the price of treated water that Singapore sells to Johor will also have to be revised.

Second, during the recent retreat, PM Lee highlighted Singapore's grave concerns about the multiple pollution incidents which have affected the Johor River and the long-term yield of the river.

Singapore said this week that there have been seven pollution incidents along the Johor River since 2017 that caused the PUB's Johor River Waterworks plant to be shut down temporarily

Johor has also built at least two water treatment plants which are upstream of the waterworks plant. Together with Singapore's facility, they draw more than the Johor River can yield on a sustainable basis, Dr Balakrishnan said.

"These issues, if not addressed, will compromise Singapore's right to extract our full 250 million gallons a day entitlement of water under the 1962 Water Agreement."

"They will also affect the water supply for Johor's own growing needs and action needs to be taken expeditiously to avoid a potentially more intractable issue in the future. This is a problem which is clear and present and we can see it looming," he added.

The minister also said officials from both countries will follow up by identifying measures to increase the river's yield, and safeguarding its environmental conditions and the quality of water.

Airspace 

On airspace matters, Dr Balakrishnan said technical agencies from both countries are in talks to implement the Global Positioning Satellite-based instrument approach procedures at Seletar Airport soon, for both the northern and southern approaches.

Last month, both sides agreed that Singapore is to withdraw the Instrument Landing System procedures which it planned to implement at Seletar, while Malaysia would suspend its restricted area in the airspace over Pasir Gudang.

 
 

In Parliament on Wednesday, Dr Balakrishnan also discussed Malaysia's intention to review the existing arrangements of Singapore providing air traffic services over southern peninsula Malaysia.

In 1974, both countries inked an agreement to operationalise this arrangement. This was based on decisions reached at the 1973 Asia-Pacific Regional Air Navigation meeting held under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

"Any proposal to change the current arrangements must also be in accordance with ICAO standards, processes and procedures and the 1973 decision," Dr Balakrishnan said.

"Our utmost priority must be to achieve the highest standards of safety and efficiency in civil aviation operations, given that the airspace arrangements in our region are very complex and will get only more complex in the future as our air traffic continues to grow.

"Discussions on the review of the 1974 operational letter of agreement will involve consultations with many regional and global stakeholders. This will take time, it cannot be rushed," he noted.

Maritime

On maritime issues, Dr Balakrishnan said Malaysia and Singapore have suspended their overlapping port limits, going back to the port limits in place before Oct 25, 2018, and Dec 6 respectively. Malaysian government vessels are no longer anchored in the area, he told the House.

Both countries will start negotiations, and a committee co-chaired by the Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Foreign Ministry and the Secretary-General of the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry will meet soon, he said.

Concluding, Dr Balakrishnan said: "Singapore and Malaysia will always be close neighbours and issues will inevitably crop up from time to time.

"What is important is that we continue to keep the channels of communication open, we discuss these issues in a calm and constructive way on the basis of equality and mutual respect, we honour our international agreements fully and we find amicable win-win solutions in accordance with international law."