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Singapore water deal: why Malaysia should stop playing the victim

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 12:29pm

I refer to former Malaysian finance minister Daim Zainuddin’s gratuitous suggestion that it “must have been easy” for Singapore to gain from its partnership with a “kleptocratic” Malaysia under former prime minister Najib Razak, especially given that the financial integrity of the city state’s major projects with the former Barisan Nasional government was based on an open tender bidding system.

Where Malaysia’s 1962 water agreement with Singapore is concerned, he can certainly do better than take the high moral ground of rehashing his country’s tired stereotype of the city state as a “legalistic” counter-party (“Water war brews as Malaysia’s Mahathir wants Singapore to cough up more”, September 2).

While it is true that Singapore buys raw untreated water from Malaysia at 3 sen per 1,000 gallons according to the deal, it also sells back treated water at a highly subsidised rate to the Johor state government out of good neighbourliness.

In addition, Singapore has also reportedly spent over S$1 billion (US$726 million) on water management infrastructure in the Malaysian state over the last couple of decades, with Malaysia not footing a single cent.

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These are facts that several Malaysian governments under Dr Mahathir Mohamad have continued to ignore, to paint Singapore as a callous and unreasonable “legalistic” partner.

Yet Daim insinuates that the republic is incapable of seeing the big picture of sustainable long-term relations without due consideration to the interests and feelings of both countries.

Who exactly is trying to stoke unnecessary resentment in people-to-people relations by presenting a skewed account of the water agreement that can affect the broader relationship? Who has repeatedly chipped and changed its position on the water issue over the years?

Does Dr Mahathir ever give due consideration to the feelings of Singaporeans whenever he spews his unprovoked asides at their country? Can Daim really blame Singaporeans for sticking to the letter of the law with such a “fickle” partner?

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Malaysia’s current financial difficulties are of its own doing, unfortunately. I am confident that Daim and his colleagues are experienced and creative enough to look at the big picture of Malaysia-Singapore relations and advise their government on alternative sources of revenue growth, instead of relying on the water agreement as an age-old crutch and scapegoat.

More than enough signals have been sent by various Dr Mahathir-led administrations to amend the agreement, even though they have also publicly acknowledged their tardiness in losing their right to do so in 1987, while continuing to make bold claims about respecting the sanctity of international agreements.

Once again, Singapore’s position on the matter remains unchanged from when the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was at the helm – the 1962 water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia is sacrosanct and a non-issue.

Singapore has certainly done more than its fair share to “compensate” Malaysia for its perceived loss on this deal in other ways for the long-term good of bilateral relations. It is time for Malaysia to progress with the times and leave this baggage behind.

John Chan, Singapore