Water fight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 12:00am

The end of the New Year holidays saw the return to Hong Kong of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom spent time in Singapore and Malaysia. I would guess, though, that few realised relations between the two were tense, if not downright hostile.

In fact, there has even been talk of war. One academic has suggested that a Singapore navy vessel firing a warning shot over the bow of a Malaysian vessel 'apparently intruding into Singapore waters' close to a small disputed island could spark conflict.

Last Thursday, the two countries finally signed a 'special agreement' to take their territorial dispute to the World Court. But it will be years before a ruling, during which time there may still be incidents, since Malaysia claims the right to patrol the waters around the Singapore-administered island.

A much more intractable dispute is that concerning water. Malaysia provides roughly half the water consumed by Singapore and has been asking to raise the price. Leaders of the two countries have been meeting and exchanging letters over the issue for years.

At a press conference following the signing ceremony on Thursday, Singapore's Foreign Minister, Shanmugam Jayakumar, suggested the dispute be handled in a similar way to the 'special agreement', by letting a third party resolve the issue. So far, Malaysia has not agreed.

The dispute has been festering for so long it is poisoning the relationship between the neighbours, which, before 1965, were one country. To Malaysia, the issue is simply one of a fair price for the water it provides. But to Singapore, the dispute involves a question of sovereignty and, indeed, the survival of the country.

In fact, a Malaysian diplomat in 1968 said at the United Nations that 'some treaties might be so fundamental to the very existence of states that they simply could not be dispensed with, whatever political differences might arise'. And he gave Malaysia's agreement to supply water to Singapore as one such example, an agreement that 'could not be terminated or suspended for any political reason'.

So far, Malaysia has honoured its agreements to provide water. But there have been hints, extremely disturbing to Singapore, that Malaysia could adopt domestic legislation that would override the agreements. This would, on the face of it, be contrary to international law.

There is another reason for Singapore's sensitivity. The two water agreements between the Public Utilities Board of Singapore and the Johor state government of 1961 and 1962 were guaranteed by the governments of Malaysia and Singapore in their separation agreement, signed in 1965, when Singapore was, in effect, expelled from Malaysia.

Singapore fears that if Malaysia feels it can unilaterally vary the water agreement today, then there is no reason why it may not feel it can unilaterally abrogate the separation agreement at some future date and again claim Singapore as part of its territory.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, responding to these concerns, said it was absurd to suggest sovereignty was a function of the price of water. 'Say you don't want to pay, it is easier,' he said. As for Singapore's independence, he said, it was Malaysia that gave Singapore its independence. 'Before, it was just part of Malaysia. They are a sovereign country. No way are we going to colonise them or do anything towards them.'

Dr Mahathir also dismissed any notion that Malaysia might go to war with Singapore, saying: 'It is impossible to go to war with Singapore without hurting a lot of innocent people.' Still, Singapore is disturbed by the rhetoric emanating from Malaysia, including from the media. The New Straits Times of Malaysia, in a recent editorial, said: 'The city state is playing with fire . . . Singapore cannot afford to irk its neighbours.' Another editorial, on Saturday, said: 'The time must surely have arrived when arrogant Singapore is put in its place, albeit politely, and reminded that if it were not for Kuala Lumpur's grace, it would still be today a part of Malaysia.'

Singapore's concern is, therefore, understandable. As for Hong Kong, its people have a stake in the dispute too. They would like to continue to visit without having to worry about being caught in the middle of hostilities.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator