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Supplementary Questions During The Committee Of Supply Debate, 1 March 2019

01 March 2019

 

MP Anthea Ong: “Thank you, Chairman. Could I ask the question, and this is not on the Rohingya crisis. May I ask the Minister if MFA has an assessment on whether there is support amongst the member states in terms of a review of the non-interference policy within ASEAN? And I appreciate that this is a foundational principle of ASEAN when we were founded, but I would just like to get a sense from the Minister if there is an assessment on the support amongst the other countries. Thank you.

Minister: The principle of non-interference within ASEAN is actually a foundational principle, and you need to understand the reason why we have to operate this way. This is because we are so vastly different. You know, even the EU has its own challenges with differences amongst themselves. But if you look at ASEAN, the 10 of us, size, economy, government systems, as I said before, ranging from monarchies, military arrangements, variety of democracies, it would fracture ASEAN if we were to abandon that principle. So I much rather our current practical approach, which is by moral suasion, by quiet diplomacy, discussion behind the scenes, and to tell our fellow members that yes, you have a problem within your borders but it has an impact on us. And for what it is worth, these are our views, this is how we will offer to help. And sometimes if it is particularly egregious, we will have to say things publicly. And that is how it has operated all this while. I completely sympathise with your and Louis’ concern for the refugees, but as Louis also noted during his intervention, this problem has been around a long time. It has pre-dated ASEAN. And we cannot force a quick resolution. So that is why, it is a long answer to your question, but we cannot end the principle of non-interference.”

MP Vikram Nair: Minister and Dr Maliki both mentioned that efforts have been taken to make the relationship with Malaysia more constructive. But just yesterday there were remarks by Dr Mahathir at a meeting with Johor state government officials, saying that he is, in fact, encouraging the people of Johor to protest against the current water deal, to say it’s unfair and Singapore is a rich country and should be more generous. Does the Minister have any comments on this?

Minister: Well, thank you for that pointed question. In fact, I think there’s an article in The Straits Times, today. Dr Mahathir, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, was reported to have made comments yesterday, in Johor. And he asked, and I will quote, how Singapore, as “a rich nation”, could pay “such an unreasonable rate” for raw water sold by Malaysia under the 1962 Water Agreement when Malaysia was, in his own words, a poorer country by GDP per capita. He said this was “morally wrong”. These are strong, emotive words, no doubt intended to rouse public opinion.

Mr Chairman, I’m supposed to be diplomatic. But I think members of this House also know that I call a spade a spade. This is a red herring. The 1962 Water Agreement is not about who is richer or poorer. It is about the fundamental principle of respecting the sanctity of agreements. And Singapore’s position on the 1962 Agreement has been clear and consistent. The 1962 Water Agreement was guaranteed—no, in fact, first I should say, that in 1962 when this agreement was signed, Malaysia was an independent country. They had their own leadership. They had their own firm legal advice. And they entered into this Agreement in 1962. In 1965, when Singapore was ejected from the Federation of Malaysia, we took the precaution of ensuring that the 1962 Water Agreement was guaranteed by the governments of both Malaysia and Singapore. It forms, in effect, part of our 1965 Separation Agreement. Any breach of the 1962 Water Agreement would call into question the Separation Agreement. And this Separation Agreement is the basis for our existence as an independent, sovereign state. Therefore, Malaysia and Singapore must fully honour the terms of the 1962 Water Agreement, including the price of water that’s stipulated in it. And our longstanding position has been that neither Malaysia nor Singapore can unilaterally change the terms of this agreement between our two countries.

As I told the House—I think it was in July last year— Malaysia lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement. In fact, Malaysia herself has previously acknowledged that they chose not to seek a review in 1987 because they benefited from the pricing arrangement under the 1962 Water Agreement. Dr Mahathir, whom, I would remind the House, was the Prime Minister at that point in time—in fact, he was Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. Dr Mahathir himself explained in 2002 that Malaysia did not ask for a review in 1987 as Malaysia knew that any revision would also affect the price of treated water that’s sold by Singapore to Malaysia. Today, Singapore continues to sell treated water to Malaysia in excess of our obligation. Our obligation under the 1962 Water Agreement is to sell 5 million gallons per day. But actually, today, as we speak, we are selling around 16 million gallons per day. And we are selling it at a fraction of the cost of treating that water. In other words, for every gallon, we are subsidising. On top of this, from time to time, PUB also receives additional requests to supply additional treated water to Johor. For example, just between 2 and 4 January this year, Singapore supplied an additional 6 million gallons per day of treated water. This is over and above the 16 million gallons per day that I described earlier. And we did—we supplied this to Johor when it needed more water because its water plants were experiencing a disruption, due to pollution.

Furthermore, Members may recall that in 1990—and again, I remind you that this is during Dr Mahathir’s first Prime Ministership—the PUB and Johor signed an agreement in 1990 to construct the Linggiu Dam to increase the yield of the Johor River. Johor owns the Linggiu Dam, but Singapore paid more than S$300 million for its construction and operational costs, as well as compensation for the land used by the Linggiu Reservoir, and for the potential loss of revenue from logging activities, and also inclusive of a one-time payment of the lease of that land for the remaining tenure of the 1962 Water Agreement. If—and this is an important point—if Malaysia had exercised the right to review the price of water in 1987, Singapore might well have made very different investment decisions on developing the Johor River. Overall, we have spent more than S$1 billion on water projects in Johor. And this has helped not only PUB’s waterworks, but Johor’s own waterworks, which are also extracting water from the same river. In fact, Members will also recall that the Linggiu Reservoir dropped—the water level dropped to a historic low of 20% in October 2016 because there was a drought and we needed to use that water in order to supply the downstream water treatment plants. And in periods of dry weather—and just by coincidence, Johor is experiencing a period of dry weather now, that’s why there have been fires and that’s why there’ve been the smell of burning material in Singapore in recent days—in this period of dry weather, Singapore continues to provide Johor with treated water upon their request. And we do so out of goodwill, without prejudice or legal rights under the Water Agreement.

We are permanent neighbours, and we want to be good neighbours. And we have never shied away from dealing with difficult bilateral issues. And this is why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed to Dr Mahathir, when they met in November 2018, that both Attorneys-General of Singapore and Malaysia would meet to better understand each other’s positions on whether Malaysia still had the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement. The Attorneys-General actually did meet in December 2018. Unfortunately, their discussions were overshadowed by the Johor Bahru Port Limits and the Seletar Instrument Landing System procedures issues—issues that we are now trying to resolve. Nevertheless, the two Attorneys-General will continue their discussions in due time.

Since Separation in 1965, Singapore has chosen a different and unique fundamental philosophy of governance. And quite frankly, we’ve taken a different path of development. Singapore has no natural resources; we are even short of water. But Singaporeans have long internalised that no one owes us a living. We have provided a framework where all our citizens strive to do our best and achieve our potential by dint of our efforts. We take a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption. Our Government plans and invests for the long term, as exemplified by this Budget that we are debating right now. We honour and fulfil our international agreements and commitments. As a result of that, businesses have the confidence to invest and grow in Singapore, and we make sure, as you all know in our Budget, that we invest in infrastructure ahead of time.

So on that note, I will let Members of the House and fellow Singaporeans outside decide for yourselves whether we have been “fair” or, to quote Dr Mahathir, whether we have been “morally wrong”. I think the answer is obvious.

 

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