KL may seek international arbitration on water agreement, says minister

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (left) says Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's comments are "reckless".
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (left) says Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's comments are "reckless".

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has criticised recent comments by his Singaporean counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan over the 1962 Water Agreement as "reckless" and said Malaysia will seek international arbitration if Singapore refuses to negotiate.

Speaking in the Malaysian Parliament yesterday, Datuk Saifuddin disagreed with Singapore's position that Malaysia lost the right to review the 1962 Water Agreement after it chose not to do so in 1987.

"He (Dr Balakrishnan) accused Malaysia of not respecting the 1962 agreement by saying we can no longer review it after 25 years," he said. "Clause 14 of the agreement says that the (agreement) shall be subject to review after the expiry of 25 years from the date it is signed, and not at 25 years.

"So I don't understand what English is used by the Singaporean Foreign Minister to interpret it in such a manner."

He was replying to a question by opposition MP and former natural resources and environment minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar on the terms of reference for bilateral talks on the water agreement.

"If they (Singapore) no longer want to negotiate, then we will bring it to international arbitration, and when we reach such a level, I hope the lawmakers here will give us the support to do so," Mr Saifuddin said.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed to his Malaysian counterpart, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in November last year that the attorneys-general of both sides meet to better understand each other's positions on whether Malaysia still had the right to review the price of water under the current pact.

Mr Saifuddin yesterday said that before Malaysia takes the matter to international arbitration, it needs to ensure the country, especially Johor, has ample water supply.

"We need to work on zero dependency on water from Singapore," he said.

The latest exchange of words between the neighbours started when Dr Mahathir said late last month that"rich" Singapore has been benefiting from "poor" Malaysia and urged Johor to speak up against the 1962 Water Agreement.

On March 1, Dr Balakrishnan, speaking during a debate on the Foreign Ministry's budget in Parliament, said the water pact is not about who is richer or poorer.

"It is about the fundamental principle of respecting the sanctity of agreements," he said, adding that Dr Mahathir's words were a "red herring" intended to rouse public opinion.

He also noted that Dr Mahathir acknowledged in 2002, during his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, that he did not seek the review in 1987 as any revision would also have affected the price of treated water sold by Singapore to Malaysia.

Under the 1962 Water Agreement, which expires in 2061, Singapore can draw up to 250 million gallons a day (mgd) of raw water from Johor at three sen per 1,000 gallons.

Johor is entitled to buy up to five mgd of treated water from Singapore at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, a price that Singapore says is heavily subsidised and below the cost of treating the water.

Singapore has also, in practice, been supplying 16 mgd of treated water at Johor's request.

Asked if there were subsidies given to Singapore in the sale and purchase of water, Mr Saifuddin claimed Malaysia has given at least RM2.4 billion in subsidies to the Republic since the 1960s - which he said, without giving details on the calculations, translates to about RM100,000 (S$33,200) a day, or RM42 million a year, in subsidies.

He also accused Dr Balakrishnan of insinuating that the current Malaysian government was facing governance problems. "That is a malicious accusation, it is hitting below the belt," said Mr Saifuddin.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2019, with the headline KL may seek international arbitration on water agreement, says minister. Subscribe