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New Detente in Malaysia-Singapore Water Sharing Standoff?

SINGAPORE, Singapore

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have agreed to "seek amicable solutions, including the possibility of dispute resolution through arbitration on a mutually agreed basis", to the long-running dispute between the countries over terms of the 1962 water sharing agreement between the nations.

In a joint statement issued after a press conference April 9, both prime ministers noted their countries' interest "to identify appropriate and timely measures, including schemes, to increase the yield of the Johor River, and to safeguard its environmental conditions and water quality", to the extent required by the 1962 Agreement.

The leaders also noted the differing positions of both sides on the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Agreement, and have agreed for their Attorneys-General to discuss these differing positions.

"Both sides will seek amicable solutions, including the possibility of dispute resolution through arbitration on a mutually agreed basis," they said.

Tensions Ease?

Malaysia had last week commissioned a study, to be completed within 30 days, to examine withdrawing from the 1962 Malaysia-Singapore water sharing agreement. Together with the state government, Malaysia's National Water Services Commission (SPAN) would look at resources, framework and impact of such a withdrawal, Xavier Jayakumar, Malaysia's Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources said April 3, adding "we want Johor (State) to not be dependent and we don't want them to take (treated) water from Singapore anymore".

The Johor branch of the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM, Malaysia United Indigenous Party), has previously appealed to Singaporeans to urge their government to review the existing water agreement between Malaysia and Singapore.

"I appeal to the people of Singapore to…. voice to their government how morally wrong it is to benefit from our goodwill through such a lopsided agreement," said Johor PPBM media director Mohd Solihan Badri in a March 6 announcement.

The 1962 Agreement

According to a 1962 agreement between the two countries, Singapore water agency PUB has the exclusive right to draw up to 250 million gallons (mgd) of water from the Johor River each day. In return, Johor is entitled to buy treated water of the same volume as up to 2 per cent of the water extracted by Singapore on any given day, or about 5 mgd if Singapore draws its full entitlement of water from the Johor River. The agreement extends to 2061.

Malaysia has long contended that the price Singapore pays is unrealistically low in modern terms and that the price it pays for treated water is unfair. Singapore insists that the original agreement is still valid and maintains that the price it receives for the treated water falls short of the cost of treatment.

But Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir has made it clear since he was re-elected that he wants to renegotiate terms with Singapore and said during the week of March 3 that the country may take the dispute to the International Court of Justice and that he anticipated Singapore would lose its case there.

“We will talk to them,” he said, adding that both sides cannot unilaterally change the terms of the decades-long agreement. Malaysia Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was expected to lead negotiations with Singapore.

“We need to argue and fight over this,” he had said. “A rich country is buying from a poor country at an unreasonable price.”

In response, Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said Mahathir’s comments were “strong, emotive words, no doubt intended to rouse public opinion”, and a “red herring”.

Singapore also reiterated that all parties must adhere to the terms of the water agreement after Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian said March 1 that the state plans to be self-sufficient in treated water instead of relying on Singapore.