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Edited Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Oral Reply to Parliamentary and Supplementary Questions on Singapore-Malaysia Relations after the 9th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat

08 May 2019

QUESTION

 

Mr Vikram Nair: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs whether he can provide an update on the state of bilateral relations with Malaysia following the 9th Malaysia-Singapore Leaders Retreat.

 

 

REPLY:

 

1                    Mr Speaker, Malaysia hosted the 9th Leaders’ Retreat on the 9th of April 2019. Prime Minister Lee and Prime Minister Mahathir had very candid discussions and they both reaffirmed our mutual commitment to maintaining a positive and constructive bilateral relationship. I will now provide an update on four key issues: the maritime boundaries, air, water, and land connectivity issues.

 

Maritime boundaries

 

2                    So let us start with maritime boundaries. The Malaysian Foreign Minister Mr Saifuddin Abdullah and I agreed on a set of measures to de-escalate tensions on the 14th of March 2019. Malaysia and Singapore have therefore mutually suspended the implementation of the overlapping port limits, and we have applied the port limits that were in effect prior to the 25th of October 2018 and the 6th of December 2018 respectively. The Malaysian Government vessels are no longer anchored in the area.

 

3                    The next step is for both countries to start negotiations on the maritime boundary and we will do so through the committee that is be co-chaired by the Permanent Secretary of MFA and the Secretary General of the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry. This Committee will be meeting soon.

 

Water

 

4                    On water, our position has remained clear, consistent and unchanged. At the Retreat, we reiterated that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement (62WA). Neither country can unilaterally change the terms of this Agreement. The 62WA is enshrined in the 1965 Separation Agreement. It is therefore a fundamental founding document for Singapore. Our Attorneys-General are having further discussions on the differing legal positions of both sides on the right to review the price of water under the 62WA.

 

5                    Whilst Malaysia is apparently most concerned about the price of raw water, this issue cannot be viewed in isolation. First, if there is any revision in the price of raw water, it is obvious that the price of treated water that Singapore sells to Johor will also have to be revised. This is obvious. Second, at the Retreat, Prime Minister Lee highlighted Singapore’s grave concerns about the multiple pollution incidents which have affected the Johor River and the long-term yield of the Johor River. Members of the House would be aware, and I think Minister Masagos reminded us of this over the last two days, of the recent case of ammonia pollution in the Johor River on the 4th of April 2019. This is the seventh pollution incident in the Johor River since 2017 which led to a shutdown of our Waterworks. Further, Johor has built at least two water treatment plants upstream of PUB’s Johor River Waterworks, and we also note that the future demands for water in Johor will increase. These two Malaysian plants, combined with our Johor River Waterworks, are currently drawing more water from the Johor River than it can yield on a sustainable basis.

 

6                    These issues, if not addressed, will compromise Singapore’s right to abstract our full 250mgd entitlement of water under the 62WA.  They will also affect the water supply for Johor’s own growing needs, and action needs to be taken expeditiously to avoid a potentially more intractable issue in the future. This is a problem which is clear and present and we can see it looming. Both sides have noted Singapore and Malaysia’s mutual interest in identifying appropriate and timely measures, including additional schemes, to increase the yield of the Johor River, and to safeguard its environmental conditions, and to safeguard in particular the quality of the water. Officials from both countries will follow up on this. The two Foreign Ministers have also been tasked to follow up on the water issues that were raised at the Retreat.

 

Airspace

 

7                    Let me move now to airspace. On the 6th of April 2019, both sides agreed for Malaysia to indefinitely suspend its Restricted Area over Pasir Gudang, and for Singapore to withdraw the Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures for Seletar Airport. The ILS procedures will be replaced with GPS-based instrument approach procedures. The technical agencies from both countries are currently engaged in discussions with a view to implementing the GPS-based instrument approach procedures soon for both the northern and southern approaches.

 

8                    At the Retreat, Malaysia reiterated its intention to review the existing arrangements for air traffic services provision over southern Peninsular Malaysia pursuant to the 1974 Operational Letter of Agreement (OLA) that was signed by Malaysia and Singapore. It is very important to note that this 1974 OLA in fact operationalises the decisions that were reached at the 1973 Asia-Pacific Regional Air Navigation Meeting held under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This decision sets out the recommendations that were agreed to by both Singapore and Malaysia, as well as other regional states, and was subsequently approved by the ICAO Council. Thus, any review of the existing airspace arrangements should take into account both countries’ needs and interests, as well as the interests of other stakeholders, including the airlines and the ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization. Any proposal to change the current arrangements must also be in accordance with ICAO standards, processes and procedures, and the 1973 decision I mentioned earlier. Our utmost priority must be to achieve the highest standards of safety and efficiency in civil aviation operations, given that the airspace arrangements in our region are very complex and will only get more complex in the future as our air traffic continues to grow. Discussions on the review of the 1974 OLA will involve consultations with many regional and global stakeholders. These will take time. It cannot be rushed. Singapore will discuss these matters with Malaysia in good faith and in the spirit of bilateral cooperation.

 

Land connectivity

 

9                    On land connectivity, Singapore will consider Malaysia’s proposal to suspend the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link Project for six months from the 1st of April 2019, and we will do so in a manner that is similar to the arrangements we made for the suspension of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) Project. Both sides are currently working out the details of the Supplemental Agreement to effect this proposed suspension. As for the HSR Project, both sides had earlier agreed to suspend the Project up to the 31st of May 2020. 

 

10               Both Prime Ministers also discussed the issue of congestion at the Causeway and Second Link. Both Prime Ministers agreed to explore initiatives, including the use of new technology, for enhanced security and checkpoint efficiency. Prime Minister Lee also shared Singapore’s plans to upgrade the Woodlands Checkpoint to meet growing traffic needs, and to ensure that immigration clearance remains secure.

 

11               Singapore believes that the RTS Link and the HSR Projects are mutually beneficial projects that will significantly ease congestion, facilitate business and tourism, and bring the people of Malaysia and Singapore closer together. Malaysia wants to review these projects, and we have agreed for this review to be done in the spirit of bilateral cooperation. The ball is now in their court, and we hope that Malaysia will find a way forward in the projects within the period of suspension that they have requested.

 

 

Conclusion

 

12               Mr Speaker, in conclusion, Singapore and Malaysia will always be close neighbours and issues will inevitably crop up from time to time. What is important is that we continue to keep the channels of communication open; we discuss these issues in a calm and constructive way, on the basis of equality and mutual respect; we honour our international agreements fully, and we find amicable win-win solutions in accordance with international law.

 

13               I believe both sides have demonstrated, at the Leaders’ Retreat, a commitment to manage some of the recent bilateral issues to ensure that we protect our broader, multi-faceted relationship. We are now on a more stable footing. But there is still much work to be done, and there are also new areas of cooperation which we hope to explore together. Singapore is ready and willing to cooperate with Malaysia in the spirit of goodwill and neighbourliness.

 

 

14               Thank you.

 

 

SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTION

 

Question 1

 

MP Vikram Nair: I thank the Minister for the very comprehensive response, covering a very wide range of issues, and I think very good outcomes have been achieved from this Leaders’ Retreat, in very difficult situations. But this is more of a subjective question. Does the Minister feel that good relationships have also been built at all levels, including at the working level where all the implementation will take place? Because the Malaysian government is very large, and many of the Ministers are new. I think at the working level, the government-to-government level, it would be good to have relationships as well. I’m wondering if this is the first step to building relationships at a deeper level.

 

 

REPLY:

 

1        Relationships at multiple levels are important. And I think at the people-to-people level, given our history and the fact that most of us have relatives on both sides of the Causeway, I believe Singaporeans and Malaysians want good relations between our two states. Having said that, I think it is just as important for the civil service, the officials, the Members of Parliament from all parties, and Ministers and obviously the Prime Ministers to also continue to engage one another, look for areas where we can cooperate constructively, understand each other’s concerns and anxieties, and then try to make progress. So I want to encourage more interaction between the civil servants and parliamentarians. And I would encourage all of you to do so when the opportunities arise.

 

Question 2

 

MP Pritam Singh: I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for his reply. My question pertains to certain comments made by the Minister with regard to water – in particular the right of Singapore under the 62WA to draw up to 250mgd from Johor. Minister said that in future, it would appear that there would be a risk that we would not be able to draw that amount, given Johor’s own needs are likely to grow. That development sounds worrying for Singapore. Can I ask the Minister, prior to today, for example, have there been situations where we have not been able to draw the 250mgd per day, apart from those incidents where the waterworks had to be shut down?

 

REPLY:

 

1        This is a very important point. Quite apart from Johor’s own growing needs, and we expect that as we do more together with Johor, and as our bilateral projects take off and the economy improves, Johor will need more water. But actually, and here I would be very frank, the biggest threat to Johor’s own water supply is actually the lack of environmental protection. The seven episodes of pollution since 2017, which resulted in the water treatment plants having to be shut down, are a clear and present amber warning light. Singaporeans may not have noticed because whenever our plant shuts down, fortunately, because of very careful and astute management by PUB, Singaporeans’ water supply is apparently not affected. But every time our plant in Johor shuts down, there is disruption and water rationing in Johor. So this should focus their minds on protecting the environmental standards and the quality of the water in the rivers. And again, as a former minister in charge of water, I need to remind you – if you walk outside Parliament, you realise that every drain – every longkang in the city – flows into Marina Bay. And we drink the water from Marina Bay, after appropriate treatment. The challenge in maintaining that quality of assured water supply is not just a technical challenge. It means having strict laws against littering, against pollution, strict and careful long-term planning on zoning – on what type of economic activities are allowed in the water catchment area. And in fact, this has been a key critical ingredient for Singapore’s success in water management. The fact is, actually the same approach is needed in Johor. But I don’t want to belabour this point, because to be fair, the authorities in Johor are aware of this, and within their own limits, they are trying to address it. I do want to add one more point – that actually PUB has an excellent relationship with the water agencies in Johor. We’ve worked very well. There is no problem at the technical level.

 

Question 3

 

NMP Walter Theseira: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Just to follow up on the last point, Minister, would Singapore consider providing material or technical assistance to Malaysia on a bilateral basis to safeguard the Johor River watershed? Is that something we are prepared to do?

 

REPLY:

 

1        Actually, Singapore and Malaysia have been working on this for a very long time. A clear example of this is the construction of the dam over the Linggiu River, which has led to the development of the Linggiu Reservoir, which has been operating since the 1990s, and has been a significant buffer that has helped to ensure good yield from the Johor River. I would have to remind everyone, including the Malaysians, that Singapore paid for it. We paid for its construction, we paid compensation; in fact, our estimate is that over the years, we’ve probably spent over $1 billion on such projects. So there should be no question about our willingness to engage and assist on a technical level in order to further projects which ultimately have win-win consequences for both Johor and Singapore in the long term. I should also add that these investments that we have made in Linggiu Reservoir – ultimately, they are owned by Malaysia. And just as in 2011 when we returned all the waterworks in full working order to Johor – these were the waterworks in Tebrau, Scudai, and Gunung Pulai, which were pursuant to the 1961 Water Agreement (61WA) – we intend to do the same thing pursuant to the current 62WA, which expires in 2061. I say all this so that I hope the Malaysian people appreciate that Singapore has been a constructive, helpful, reliable and honest partner. And actually the more important fundamental point – if you cut across all the political polemic which you often hear – the fact is that the Water Agreements – the 61WA which has expired, and the 62WA which is still in effect – actually have brought enormous benefit to the people of both Malaysia and Singapore.

 

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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

SINGAPORE

9 MAY 2019

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