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Water (prices) flow both ways, Dr M

It seems like the irascible doctor up north is keen to see a row between Johoreans and Singaporeans. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is  telling Johoreans to complain about the 3 sens price of water which Malaysia sells to “rich” Singapore. He’s berating them for doing nothing and for waiting for the Federal Government to act instead. And there was I thinking that something as strategic as water is dealt between sovereign entities, especially if there are bilateral agreements to refer to.

“Singapore rapidly developed because we have been supplying them with water, but I find the Johoreans rarely talk about it. They just wait for negotiations to be undertaken by the federal government as if the state government is unaffected,” he said.

“The state government must make their voices heard. The rich are depending on the poor? This is not only illogical but also morally wrong. We must put stress on this issue.”

Perhaps he wanted to say that Singapore “survived” rather than “rapidly developed” because of Malaysian water. In any case, I wonder what prevented Johor from becoming “rich” since it is the source of water. Poor Johor.

As for the question of morals, Johoreans might do better to ask their State Government how much water the State receives and the price of treated water they themselves pay to use.

The water agreement of 1962 say that Singapore pays 3 sen per thousand gallons of raw water and sells treated water back to Johor at 50 sen per thousand gallons. Johor is  entitled to a daily supply of treated water of up to 2 per cent or 5 mgd of the water supplied to Singapore.

The facts, however, are that the Republic has been supplying 16 mgd of treated water to Johor at their request, way beyond the entitlement. And it is still at 50 sens, a fraction of the price of water purification. It costs Singapore RM2.40 to treat every 1,000 gallons of water. That’s a subsidy of RM1.90 per 1,000 gallons to Malaysia. Everyday, Singapore is providing a water subsidy of RM70,000 to Malaysia.

(I got this information from the booklet Water Talks, published by the G in 2002 when we rowed with Malaysia over the water price. I recommend it as reading material for those interested in the twists and turns, demands and counter-demands made during that rough period when there was even some rumblings about going to war. I don’t know if the subsidy level has come down over the years with better technology, but the fact remains that we’ve been paying a high price for water, and financing whatever infrastructure needed to keep water flowing.)

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That heavily-subsidised treated water, by the way, is  sold back to Johoreans at RM3.95 per 1,000 gallon. According to Malaysiakini, water tariffs in Johor are among the most expensive in Malaysia.

If you want to start counting sens, Singapore has paid for water several multiples over, providing the infrastructure,  technology and heavily subsidised treated water. All Johor needs to do is wait for rain. And when it doesn’t rain, we’re asked for water – which we give, the last time being last month.

Even as Johoreans are being incited to kick up a fuss over the price of raw water, I hope they realise that Singapore isn’t going to keep the price of treated water at 50 sens. That would only be fair.

Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian is now saying that it is Johor’s long term plan to treat all its own water. Good on Johor. It already runs treatment plants, including some built by Singapore and handed over in 2011. It has the Linggui Dam which Singapore invested considerably in. If it can stop the pollution of the Johor River or restrain chicken farms from dumping waste in it, there’s no reason the State can’t be self-sustaining.

The nub of the matter is this: I don’t know how much it costs Johor to purify water but chances are that it is NOT 50 sens per 1,000 gallon. Do the Johoreans know how much?

On a separate note, I’m wondering why Dr M is egging Johor to go it alone. Is he telling the Johor State government that the water price is the more important issue rather than the maritime dispute over port limits or the over-flights that airplanes from Singapore’s Seletar airport would have to make? Or is he saying that putting pressure on Singapore over air and sea isn’t enough to force Singapore into making concessions on the price of water? Or is this a rebuke to Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim who had said that he preferred that KL get out of the way?

The prince told CNA in January:  “At the end of the day, the water in Johor belongs to Johor. Water is state sovereignty. When it comes to religion, land and water, it belongs to the state. Therefore, I think it’s the Johor state government (that) should decide. (I prefer) not to have federal interference when it comes to water between Johor and Singapore.”

Clearly, KL thought that the attorney-generals of both countries had made headway reviewing the water price when they met in December. But this notion was quickly disabused by Singapore, which pointed out that issue was “over-shadowed” by the recent air and sea disputes. The terminology is vague and I can only surmise that Singapore did not want to move on water until the “new” issues had been settled. In fact, Malaysia (or is it Johor?) might have shot itself in the foot by asserting its claims on maritime port limits and control of air space while asking for a water price review.

Remember it was not so long ago that KL rebuked the Johor MB for getting on a Malaysian vessel that was anchored in Singapore waters. And there were hints from Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abulddah last month that the maritime dispute could be resolved earlier.

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“For the moment, I see the Johor Bahru port limits issue as being one of the eight involving relations between Malaysia and Singapore which can be resolved first,” he said  after meeting his Singapore counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. (Nobody has made clear what all eight issues are.)

“I believe there will be good relations with Singapore and the discussions will be smooth,” he added. “On the port limits, it can be resolved in the near future compared to the water issue, which I expect to take more time as it is quite complicated.”

If Dr M wants to play this game of hardball, Singapore can do the same. And the first thing is to tell Johoreans to be aware of the consequences of change because they already have a pretty good deal, despite whatever KL says. That would be, to use Dr M’s word, the “morally” right thing to do.







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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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