Singapore says looking forward to resumption of talks with new Malaysian govt on HSR, RTS projects

An aerial view of construction site of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail terminus in Jurong East. — TODAY pic
An aerial view of construction site of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail terminus in Jurong East. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, March 2 — Singapore is looking forward to resuming talks with the new government in Malaysia on the delayed Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail (HSR) and the Johor Baru Rapid Transit System (RTS) projects in the coming months, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said during the debate on his ministry’s budget in Parliament.

In his first remarks on the ongoing major political developments in Malaysia over the past week, Dr Balakrishnan said on Monday (March 2) that Singapore is anticipating the formation of the new Malaysian Cabinet and the resumption of bilateral talks soon.

“We know many of the personalities in (the new prime minister’s Perikatan Nasional) coalition well, from our engagements over the decades, and we wish them all the best. We are confident we will continue to have a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship with Malaysia, and look forward to resuming discussions on ongoing issues and projects.”

A political upheaval that began on February 23 led to the resignation of former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed and the eventual appointment of his successor, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on March 1.

Muhyiddin now leads the Perikatan Nasional coalition, which consists of parliamentarians from members of Dr Mahathir’s Bersatu party and the former Barisan Nasional coalition under former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak before he was toppled by the Pakatan Harapan alliance during the May 2018 elections.

Balakrishnan was responding to two speeches by Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Member of Parliament (MP) for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (GRC), and Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh on Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia.

Faishal, who is also Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Social and Family Development, noted that the political situation in Malaysia has evolved rapidly in recent days which “will inevitably affect Singapore in many ways”. He asked for an update on the HSR and RTS projects as they would bring mutual benefit to the peoples of both countries.

Balakrishnan replied that Singapore adopted a win-win approach in negotiating both projects with Malaysia, but they were delayed by the previous Pakatan Harapan government when it took over Malaysia’s reins after the 2018 elections.

“When that happened, we could have enforced our legal rights and sought full compensation from Malaysia,” he said.

 “But in the spirit of constructive bilateral cooperation, at Malaysia’s request, we agreed to temporarily suspend both projects through formal agreements and give Malaysia time to review their position and propose amendments to what both sides had previously agreed to.”

These major infrastructure projects “cannot be suspended indefinitely”, Balakrishnan emphasised.

“At some point, we must decide whether to proceed or not,” he said. “We look forward to hearing from Malaysia on these two projects in the coming months.”

He added that Singapore and Malaysia have continued to have constructive discussions on the maritime boundary delimitation issue, while also advancing cooperation in other areas, such as the economic collaboration in Iskandar Malaysia and the joint working group between both countries’ health ministries on the Covid-19 outbreak.

Later, Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said that there were more than 50 ministerial-level visits and exchanges between Malaysia and Singapore last year alone. 

“These exchanges allowed us to discuss a wide range of issues, including connectivity projects like the Singapore-Johor Baru RTS Link and Singapore-Kuala Lumpur HSR. I hope that we will be able to continue making progress on these mutually beneficial projects,” he said.

Water issue

Singh, MP for Aljunied GRC, had also asked about the longstanding water dispute between the two neighbouring countries, having noted that there were seven water pollution incidents in Johor since 2017 that had caused Johor River Waterworks — which is managed by Singapore’ water agency PUB — to be temporarily shut down. This included the Sungai Kim Kim incident last March due to illegal chemical waste dumping.

The issue of water pricing had also resurfaced recently in Malaysian parliament and media, Singh noted. “It seems like the price of raw water is a genie that is not going back into its bottle any time soon,” the opposition party leader said.

Balakrishnan reiterated that Singapore’s position is that Malaysia had lost the right to review water prices under the 1962 Water Agreement, which expires in 41 years’ time. 

In his most recent term of government, Dr Mahathir had raised his desire to revise the price of raw water sold to Singapore with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on several occasions, Balakrishnan said.

“In the spirit of bilateral cooperation, but without prejudice to our position that Malaysia has lost the right of review, we have been willing to listen to and discuss Malaysia’s proposals, on the basis that there is a balance of benefits for both sides,” he said.

Balakrishnan had also held preliminary discussions about the pricing issue with then-Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah last December and again in January this year, on the basis that any review of the price of raw water sold to Singapore will also mean a review of the price of treated water sold to Johor.

Both sides must also discuss the yield and quality of the water from Johor River, Balakrishnan said. Under the 1962 Water Agreement, Singapore is entitled to 250 million gallons of raw water from the Johor River.

Malaysia’s obligations

However, the construction of two major Malaysian water treatment plants upstream of PUB’s plant and the several pollution incidents mentioned by Mr Singh has raised concerns in Singapore, he added.

“In fact, the 1990 Water Agreement, which is a supplement to the 1962 Water Agreement, was the result of prolonged negotiations between Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Dr Mahathir. Tan Sri Muhyiddin (now Malaysia’s prime minister) played a key role, as then-Mentri Besar (Chief Minister) of Johor,” he said. 

Since then, Malaysia had also built a barrage along Johor River at Kota Tinggi to keep seawater from affecting the extraction of raw water from the river.

But more needs to be done “urgently”, Balakrishnan said, otherwise Singapore and Malaysia could end up in a “very difficult situation” down the road, especially in dry weather conditions.

“If Johor is unable to fulfil its obligations to provide us with 250 million gallons of water as stipulated under the 1962 Water Agreement, this will have grave consequences. It would undermine the sanctity of the 1962 Water Agreement and damage our bilateral relationship,” he said

To avoid this outcome, Singapore has been willing to hold discussions with Malaysia on its obligations, and was prepared to discuss sharing the cost of pollution control measures and schemes to increase the yield of Johor River with Malaysia, he added.

“If despite our best efforts, Singapore and Malaysia are unable to reach an amicable outcome on these issues through negotiations, Singapore is prepared to resolve them through arbitration, on terms mutually agreed to by both countries, like how we have successfully resolved other bilateral issues in the past. 

“This is what Prime Minister Lee and Tun Dr Mahathir agreed at the Ninth Leader’s Retreat in April last year,” he said.

Stressing that water is only one out of many bilateral areas of cooperation, Dr Balakrishnan said that no single issue should “colour the overall positive and multi-faceted relationship” between the two neighbouring countries.

“We therefore hope that when Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s Cabinet is formed, we will be able to pick up where we left off and continue our discussions on the outstanding important matters, including water,” he said. — TODAY

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