NEVER has a water agreement between two neighbouring states caused so much tension as that between Malaysia and Singapore. But our island neighbour continues with its insular ways.
Singapore wants Malaysia to continue supplying water on the cheap — at three sen per 1,000 gallons (4,546 litres), a price agreed in 1962.
Not that Singapore can’t afford a price review. According to a 2019 report by 24/7 Wall Street, Singapore is the third richest country in the world. It is just a case of Singapore not wanting to pay a just price.
A case of penny wise pound foolish? Short-term thinking never did neighbours any good.
Singapore has a habit of making extraneous arguments. Often it travels beyond the four corners of the agreement at hand by tying up issues with this and that.
Take the case of its former foreign minister S. Jayakumar’s statement to a special Parliament sitting on Jan 25, 2003: “The significance of the water price, for both countries, is Singapore's existence as a sovereign nation separate from Malaysia, and the sanctity of the most solemn agreements that we have entered into with Malaysia.”
Any breach of the water agreement, he continued, must call into question the Separation Agreement and can undermine the island’s very existence.
Jayakumar needs to be told two things. One, Malaysia is not seeking to breach the water agreement. All it wants is a review of the price as provided for in Clause 14 of the water agreement: “It shall be subject to review after the expiry of 25 years from the date of this present.”
How could a review as per the water agreement undermine the very existence of Singapore? Jayakumar may need an English lesson. And a law class too. A “review” of the price as per the agreement is not a “breach”. This is contract law 101, professor.
Besides, the agreement provides for a termination date. Is Jayakumar saying that Singapore ceases to exist when the water agreement ends in 2061?
Two, Malaysia stands by the wordings of Clause 14 as agreed. If an agreement is said “to be subject to review after the expiry of 25 years from the date of this present”, it means two things.
One, it can be reviewed. Two, the review can be done any time after 25 years. Not just in 1986 or 1987 as Singapore mischievously argues.
Even more befuddling is the statement by Singapore’s current Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who seems to think that Malaysia has no right to review the price at all.
Then why the need for Clause 14, minister?
We tell Singapore this: do not unilaterally rewrite the water agreement.
Singapore has even called in its aid a booklet, Water Talks. It is just a Singapore story about why the three sen per 1,000 gallons should stay.
Singapore, the booklet says, had, as of 2003, spent S$1 billion — and Malaysia none — on infrastructure, dams, treatment plants and other operational and maintenance works to treat the water it bought.
Surely, after buying the water, Singapore can’t expect Malaysia to pay for the cost of treating it.
Would a vehicle vendor pay to keep the buyer’s car running? Singapore will do well to honour the contract by agreeing to a price review.