PUTRAJAYA, April 9 — Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will meet with his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong at a retreat today, their first since Pakatan Harapan came to power last year.
The 9th Malaysia-Singapore Leaders’ Retreat has been plagued by uncertainty, with the original date late last year postponed amid several diplomatic tussles, but both sides will hope for more good news from the bilateral meet — particularly on the controversial water deal.
“We are optimistic there will be one or two positive announcements,” Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah told Malay Mail at a recent interview.
Saifuddin also lauded the fact that both countries can now bring certain difficult issues to the table, when they would not even have been in the agenda previously.
“The most difficult is the water agreement because it involves actual dollars and cents,” he added.
“Sometimes ministers make statements, which is normal, but at the end of the day somehow we manage to get certain things agreed upon,” he added, referring to remarks made by both Cabinets to their respective media or Parliament.
Last month, Saifuddin had taken a swipe at his Singaporean counterpart Dr Vivian Balakrishnan for the latter’s “reckless” comments about the 1962 Water Agreement between both countries, telling Parliament that Putrajaya would seek international arbitration if Singapore did not renegotiate the agreement.
Bilateral relations between the federation and the island republic had grown frosty, after Dr Mahathir said last year that the price of raw water being sold to Singapore was “manifestly ridiculous.”
Putrajaya said Malaysia has given subsidies of up to RM2.4 billion— about RM42 million a year or RM100,000 a day — in the sale of raw water to Singapore since the agreement took effect.
Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, is less optimistic that a final deal will be reached today.
“The Singaporeans are quite adamant that Malaysia has lost its right to review the price of water by not doing so in 1988,” he told Malay Mail.
“That doesn’t mean that it’s not willing to consider a price review. It just wants to begin negotiations on the basis that Malaysia has lost its right to review in the first place.”
He was referring to Dr Vivian’s stance that Malaysia lost its right to review the price of water after it chose not to seek a review in 1987, or 25 years after the signing of the agreement.
It was the remark that had irked Saifuddin, with the latter replying that the agreement shall be subject to review upon expiry, 25 years from the date it was signed, and not on the 25th year.
Despite that, the road to the retreat today has so far been paved with some good news.
Just yesterday, Transport Minister Anthony Loke and his counterpart Khaw Boon Wan announced that a high-level committee will finally be formed to discuss Malaysia’s intention to take over the management of its airspace near Singapore, after delegating it to the island nation for close to five decades.
Over the weekend, Loke and Khaw also jointly announced that Firefly can now fly from Singapore’s Seletar airport after both countries struck an agreement to end the airspace dispute.
This comes as the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore also announced yesterday that both countries have reverted to their maritime boundaries in the Johor Straits as at October 25 and December 6 last year respectively, after months of tension over disputed waters.
“We’ve gone status quo ante on the port limit extensions — though Malaysia has practically forced the issue and compelled Singapore to negotiate the maritime boundary in the area,” said Shahriman.
Shahriman also said that Dr Mahathir and Lee will probably iron out the issues surrounding the High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit System projects, although not down to the details.
“Lee’s objective is probably to cultivate the best-possible working relationship with Dr Mahathir; so they’re likely to stick to the big picture and not go into the weeds of the issues, lest this clouds things,” he added.
Lee and his entourage arrived in Kuala Lumpur yesterday evening.
Both prime ministers are scheduled for a four-eyed meeting in the morning, to be followed by a delegation meeting.
“They are expected to discuss issues of mutual concern, review progress of existing bilateral cooperation and explore new areas of cooperation for mutual benefits,” Wisma Putra said in a media release yesterday.
It also highlighted the trade status of both countries — with both being each other’s second largest trade partner with total trade worth US$59.92 billion (RM246 billion) in 2018.
“Both countries have strong cooperation in the areas of investment, education, defence, agriculture, transportation, information and communication, disaster management, as well as the civil service,” the ministry said.
Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office acknowledged that the retreat is “an important platform for prime ministers of both countries to discuss bilateral issues and explore new areas of cooperation.”
The meeting will be followed by an official luncheon for the delegation hosted by Dr Mahathir and his wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, and Lee is expected to depart for home shortly after.
Lee and his wife is accompanied by the republic’s Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean; Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan; Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan; Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran; Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat; Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu; Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong; and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.
Dr Mahathir last had an official visit to Singapore during the 33rd Asean Summit in November last year.