Singapore's position on water issue with Malaysia

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday updated Parliament on discussions with Malaysia on water. Here are his remarks on the subject.

Mr Pritam Singh has asked for an update on the bilateral issues and, in particular, on the 1962 Water Agreement.

Singapore's position, a longstanding position which successive foreign ministers have reiterated, is that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement.

We have told Malaysia this as early as 2002 when Singapore last negotiated with Malaysia on water as part of a package deal.

Malaysia cannot unilaterally revise the price of water. Our legal position remains unchanged.

Then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had raised with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on several occasions (in 2018 and 2019) his desire to revise the price of raw water sold to Singapore.

Malaysia subsequently made proposals on a new price for raw water.

In the spirit of bilateral cooperation, but without prejudice to our position that Malaysia has lost the right of review, we have been willing to listen to and to discuss Malaysia's proposals, on the basis that there must be a balance of benefits for both sides.

I have in fact had some preliminary discussions over the past couple of months, over two meetings with my then Malaysian counterpart, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, in December 2019 and January 2020.

We made it clear to Malaysia that any review of the price of raw water sold to Singapore will also mean a review of the price of treated water sold to Johor.

Both sides must also discuss the yield and the quality of the water from the Johor River so as to ensure that Singapore can continue to draw our entitlement of 250 million gallons per day of raw water under the 1962 Water Agreement for the remaining 41 years of the water agreement.

We have also been concerned for a very long time about the yield and quality of the water from the Johor River.

The Malaysians have built two major water treatment plants which are drawing water from the Johor River upstream of Singapore's PUB-Johor River Waterworks. The Malaysian water treatment plants' abstraction from the Johor River, in addition to Singapore's entitlement of 250 million gallons per day, has caused the total abstraction to exceed the Johor River's sustainable yield.

In addition to that, there have been recurrent pollution incidents in the Johor River. These developments have forced the PUB-Johor River Waterworks to shut down temporarily on multiple occasions.

Singapore has raised our concerns with successive prime ministers of Malaysia on many occasions. Prime Minister Lee previously raised them with Datuk Seri Najib Razak and also with Tun Mahathir Mohamad.

In fact, the 1990 Water Agreement (which is a supplement to the 1962 Water Agreement) was the result of prolonged negotiations between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Mahathir. I believe those negotiations in fact began in 1982.

Members may not be familiar with an additional fact, which is that Tan Sri Muhyiddin (Yassin) played a key role as the then Menteri Besar of Johor, and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh (Chok Tong) was just sharing with me just now that, in fact, the two of them had a final round of negotiations at what was then the NOL Penthouse.

This agreement, the 1990 Water Agreement, led to the construction of the Linggiu Reservoir that was completed in 1993 to ensure the sustainable abstraction of our entitlement of 250 million gallons per day of raw water from the Johor River.

Had Malaysia exercised the right to review the price of water in 1987, as provided for by the 1962 Water Agreement, Singapore might then have made different investment decisions to develop the Johor River, including the Linggiu Dam.

In recent years, we have made further progress.

Malaysia built a barrage along the Johor River at Kota Tinggi, in order to keep seawater from intruding upstream and affecting the abstraction of water from the Johor River. Members may not realise how shallow the Johor River is and seawater from the straits comes all the way up to Kota Tinggi. This barrage helped.

The barrage became fully operational in March 2017.

But much more needs to be done and urgently. Johor's own water needs are increasing as its economy and its population grow. Already, from time to time, Johor's own supplies have run short and the state has had to impose water rationing and buy additional treated water from PUB.

In fact, during periods of drought, there have been occasions when they have bought more than four times their entitlement because they needed the additional water. Even in normal times they buy more than three times their entitlement under the Water Agreement.

PUB, out of goodwill, has continued to provide this additional treated water to Johor at the same price of 50 sen per thousand gallons. This is out of goodwill and this, again, illustrates the interdependence and how these arrangements have actually been of mutual benefit to both sides.

The steps need to be taken and taken now to protect the Johor River from pollution and to enhance the yield of the river and to manage the total amount of water being drawn from the river. Singapore and Malaysia could otherwise end up in a very difficult situation down the road, especially in dry weather conditions, and if you believe as I do that climate change will make the situation worse.

If Johor is unable to fulfil its obligations to provide us with 250 million gallons of raw water as stipulated by the Water Agreement, this will have grave consequences. It would undermine the sanctity of the 1962 Water Agreement, it will severely damage our bilateral relationship. Members will recall that the 1962 Water Agreement is guaranteed by Malaysia as part of the Separation Agreement in 1965, and this is the sacred document on which we draw our independence.

In order to head off such an eventuality, Singapore has been prepared to hold discussions with Malaysia on these matters related to the 1962 Water Agreement upfront without prejudice to our legal position.

We are even willing to discuss the possibility of Singapore sharing the cost of pollution control measures and new schemes to increase the yield of the Johor River since this is important for both sides.

We are therefore negotiating with Malaysia on these issues in good faith to explore a practical, durable and mutually beneficial solution for both sides.

However, if despite our best efforts, Singapore and Malaysia are unable to reach an amicable outcome on these issues through negotiations, Singapore is prepared to resolve them through arbitration on terms mutually agreed to by both countries. This is like how we have successfully resolved other bilateral issues in the past. This is what PM Lee and Tun Mahathir agreed at the 9th Leaders' Retreat in April last year.

I have explained all this in some detail so that both Malaysians and Singaporeans will appreciate that we are taking a consistent, constructive and mutually beneficial approach to the development of water infrastructure in Johor.

Both sides have benefited from these arrangements and need to continue cooperating effectively and urgently to meet the future challenges.

Ultimately, water is but one issue out of many bilateral areas of cooperation and we must not let any single issue colour the overall positive and multifaceted relationship. We should look ahead to see how we can cooperate and resolve issues for mutual benefit and for the benefit of future generations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2020, with the headline 'Singapore's position on water issue with Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe