Attorneys-general of Singapore, KL to continue talks on water pact

Both sides have agreement to discuss, better appreciate each other's positions, says Vivian

Dr Balakrishnan with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong (far right) at the meeting with Datuk Saifuddin, Malaysian Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Muhammad Shahrul Ikram (second from left) and senior officials from both
Dr Balakrishnan with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong (far right) at the meeting with Datuk Saifuddin, Malaysian Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Muhammad Shahrul Ikram (second from left) and senior officials from both sides. PHOTO: VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN/ FACEBOOK

Discussions concerning the water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia will continue, both neighbours said yesterday, amid a longstanding difference of views over whether the deal inked in 1962 can be reviewed.

The attorneys-general of both countries will resume a discussion that began last December which was overshadowed by disputes over port limits and airspace that surfaced at the same time.

The matter was discussed by their foreign ministers, who met in Putrajaya yesterday to announce measures to help resolve the port limits issue.

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said at a joint news conference alongside his counterpart after the meeting: "Both of us have agreed that the attorneys-general of Malaysia and Singapore will continue their discussions to better understand each other's position on the right to review the price of water under this agreement."

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah added that both attorneys-general will continue to discuss the agreement "with a view to finding an amicable way forward".

Datuk Saifuddin added: "We also reaffirm our commitment to resolve bilateral issues in a constructive manner, and encourage ongoing diplomatic efforts to find amicable solutions for mutual interests."

Water has resurfaced as a bilateral issue since Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad returned to power last May.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan shaking hands with his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah at the joint news conference after their meeting at Wisma Putra yesterday. PHOTO: VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN/ FACEBOOK 

Tun Dr Mahathir has revived efforts to review the 1962 deal, claiming that it is unfair, and calling the three sen per 1,000 gallons that Malaysia gets for the 250 million gallons per day (mgd) of raw water Singapore is entitled to draw from Johor a "manifestly ridiculous" price.

Last month, he urged Johor to speak up against the pact, questioning how Singapore, as "a rich nation", could pay "such an unreasonable rate" for raw water.

However, Johor is also entitled to buy 5 mgd of treated water from Singapore at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, which the Republic says is heavily subsidised and a fraction of the true cost of treating the water. In practice, Singapore has been supplying 16 mgd of treated water at Johor's request at this price.

Dr Balakrishnan told Parliament this month that Dr Mahathir had used "strong, emotive words", but the issue was about respecting the sanctity of agreements, and that Malaysia had said it chose not to seek a review in 1987 because it benefited from the pricing arrangement under the agreement.

Responding on Tuesday, Mr Saifuddin told the Malaysian Parliament that Singapore has been subsidised to the tune of RM2.4 billion (S$796 million) based on this price set in the deal.


And while Malaysia insists that a review can take place any time after 25 years since the agreement began, Singapore's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the Republic has been clear and consistent in its position that Malaysia had lost the right to review the water price when it opted not to do so in 1987.

Speaking to Singapore media after the joint news conference yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan stressed that "there is no agreement at this point in time" on a review of the existing deal.

"There is only agreement to sit down, to explain, discuss and to appreciate each other's respective positions," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan said both sides have made very clear that they have differing views on the right of review. "In the case of Singapore, our consistent and long-held position is that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water," he said.

But Malaysia had a different view, he added, noting that both prime ministers suggested their attorneys-general sit down "and let both sides get a better appreciation of each other's interpretation of the right of review".

Their first meeting in December "did not make any progress and... no agreements were reached", he said. "Some time in the near future, the two attorneys-general will get together, and again, give them an opportunity to discuss so that there is a better appreciation for our respective positions," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2019, with the headline 'A-Gs of S'pore, KL to continue talks on water pact'. Subscribe