Water war makes small splash
KUALA LUMPUR - With the
regularity of a tropical thunderstorm, yet another round
of public sparring has erupted between neighbors
Malaysia and Singapore over the perennial issue of the
water Malaysia supplies to Singapore. Likewise, just as
abruptly as the torrential rains stop, the
saber-rattling went quiet this week - leaving citizens
mystified and asking, yet again, why and for how much
Is it a battle of national egos? Or is
it a cultural clash between Malays and Singapore
The latest spat started when Malaysia
placed a series of anti-Singapore advertisements in
national and regional newspapers, deriding Singapore as
a wealthy but stingy and insincere nation for refusing
to pay more for precious water from "kind and generous"
Under two water agreements signed in
1961 and 1962, the tiny, resource-short city-state of
Singapore pays 3 Malaysian cents (US$.007) per 1,000
Imperial gallons (4,546 liters) of untreated river water
from Malaysia - a price first fixed in 1927. The first
water pact ends in 2011, and the second in 2061.
One advertisement says it all for Malaysians -
Singapore paid only RM2.39million ($629,000) for water
it bought from Malaysia in 2001, but earned RM860.1
million ($226.3 million) by reselling it to
Singaporeans. "Is this a fair price?" the advertisement
Malaysia says 3 cents is so ridiculously
low that one cannot even buy a decent nasi lemak
- the poor Malaysians' staple breakfast of cooked rice
wrapped in banana leaf and eaten with spicy
sambal or chili.
"Singapore, be a good
neighbor. Resolve our differences with sincerity and
goodwill," says another advertisement.
rounded off the media campaign with a 16-page booklet
titled "Water: The Singapore-Malaysia Dispute - The
Facts" - coyly priced at only 3 Malaysian cents.
The booklet says, in a preamble, that the
publication is intended to set the record straight to
better understand the issue of the perennial bilateral
tussle. But it is more like settling scores.
Malaysia's media campaign is a delayed reaction
to a series of steps Singapore took this year over the
In January, Singapore released a
dozen confidential letters exchanged between Senior
Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir
Mohamad as they negotiated the water dispute decades
The release of the papers angered Malaysia,
whose ties with its smaller neighbor have been stormy
since majority-ethnic Chinese Singapore split from what
was the Malaysian federation in 1965. Subsequently,
Singapore grew into a wealthy city-state that was envied
by Malaysians until Malaysia caught up.
days, rivalry between the two countries has spilled over
from water as a political football and into control of
regional finance, shipping, air transport,
telecommunications and power.
Then in March,
Singapore released a booklet titled "Water Talks? If
Only It Could" in which Singapore accused Malaysia of
"shifting goalposts" by being unreasonable, constantly
stalling and changing positions.
Singapore distributed the booklet to foreign missions
here and in the region, angering Malaysia again.
Malaysia accused the city-state of plotting to tarnish
Malaysia's image overseas.
"We must give the
true picture. The only one who is unfair and
unreasonable is Singapore," said Malaysian Foreign
Minister Syed Hamid Albar when launching the Malaysian
booklet. "That booklet [Singapore's] does not help
strengthen bilateral ties and it is as if they are not
interested in establishing a positive relationship," he
Despite the saturation media coverage on
both sides, many people say they are more confused now
than before over who is right and who is wrong.
"There is a willing seller and a willing, even a
captive buyer. Why can both countries not agree on a
fair price and stop the theatrics?" asked opposition
politician Ronnie Liew. "The same two countries could
amicably settle far more complex economic and financial
problems," he said in an interview. "Why not on water?"
National Justice Party president Dr Wan Azizah
Ismail said both sides were using the water issue to
raise nationalist sentiments. "Both sides are using the
issue to whip up domestic audiences to gain political
mileage," she said. "The taxpayers end up footing the
For Malaysia, the core of the dispute is
price - pay a higher price and the whole matter is over.
Singapore says it is willing to pay more, but not on
terms fixed arbitrarily by Malaysia.
also argues that Malaysia lost a right to review water
price in 1986 and 1987. But Malaysia disputes that,
saying a price review can be made at any time.
Singapore wants a steady, uninterrupted,
long-term supply at stable prices. Malaysia, mindful
that it also suffers from water shortage during the dry
season, is willing to supply all the water Singapore
needs, but with periodic price reviews to get the best
out of a precious commodity.
Both sides have
always urged each other to be serious and sincere. But
increasingly, the public perception is that neither side
ever was or ever will be.
The cultural barrier
is a key reason the dispute is being prolonged,
political commentator M G G Pillai says. Singapore
should discard its "graphs and pie charts and legal
arguments" and desist from humiliating Malaysia, he
"For all its technological advances,
Malaysia is a nation still mired in a cultural and
religious mindset ... it is a question of paying homage
to the Malays," Pillai said, adding that Singapore must
ask for a resumption of water talks.
also become a precious commodity in regional economic
rivalry. One case is Malaysia's new southern gateway -
the multibillion-dollar Port of Tanjung Pelepas that is
competing with the Port of Singapore for control of the
container transshipment business in the region.
Already the Port of Singapore in 2002 lost to
Pelepas its major customers - Taiwan's Evergreen Marine
and Maersk Sealand, the world's largest shipping line -
or about 20 percent of its transshipment business.
The dispute over water is related to this
rivalry over shipping, analysts say. "Ships need a huge
amount of water ... Malaysia can supply them all the
water they need and cheaply too," said a senior editor
of a shipping weekly who declined to be named.
"Water is a leveraged in economic competition.
It gives Pelepas an edge over the Port of Singapore," he
said. "At the very least we should charge Singapore
international rates for the water we sell her."
Malaysia has variously asked Singapore to pay
anywhere from 65 Malaysian cents to RM8 ($2) per 1,000
gallons of water.