June 27, 2018
A little over a month into Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s premiership, a decades-old dispute between Malaysia and its neighbour Singapore has reared its head once again.
In interviews with Bloomberg and Channel News Asia on Monday (June 25), Mahathir criticised his nation’s 1962 water agreement with neighboring Singapore.
“I think it is manifestly ridiculous that we should sell water at 3 sen per thousand gallons. That was okay way back in the 1990s or 1930s. But now what can you buy with 3 sen? Nothing,” he told Channel News Asia.
He also said he plans to renegotiate the deal, but stated at a press conference later on Monday evening that it was “not urgent.”
A spokesperson from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said in a statement that the 1962 Water Agreement is a fundamental agreement that was guaranteed by both governments in the 1965 Separation Agreement which was registered with the UN and that both sides must comply fully with all the provisions of these agreements.
The 1962 agreement allows Singapore to draw up to 250 million gallons of water a day from the Johor River on the condition that Johor is entitled to treated water of up to two per cent of the water imported, according to Singapore’s Public Utilities Board. The agreement will expire in 2061.
Water agreements between Singapore and Malaysia – and the disputes that have arisen from them – are nothing new.
According to a National Library Board article, the first such agreement dates back to 1927, well before Singapore attained its independence in 1965.
A second agreement in 1961 voided the previous agreement and allowed Singapore to draw off all the water within the designated land at Gunong Pulai, Sungei Tebrau and Sungei Scudai. The agreement expired in 2011.
This was followed by the 1962 agreement, as well as a final agreement in 1990 which enabled Singapore to build a dam across Sungei Linggiu in order to extract water from the Johor river.
However, disputes arose during Mahathir’s last stint as Prime Minister in the 1990s over the pricing of the water. In 1998, Malaysia agreed to settle outstanding bilateral issues, including the water issue, as a package, according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs article. In the years that followed, Malaysia repeatedly changed its demands, and the package approach was abandoned in 2002.
Singapore has been investing in research and technology to meet the country’s growing demand for water, which is expected to almost double by 2060, according to PUB. The country currently has two desalination plants which meet 25 per cent of the country’s water needs, as well as five NEWater plants, where treated used water is further purified for re-use, meeting up to 40 per cent of the country’s demand. NEWater and desalination are expected to meet 85 per cent of Singapore’s water demand by 2060, according to PUB.