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Water war makes small splash
By Baradan Kuppusamy

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 longer?

Is it a battle of national egos? Or is it a cultural clash between Malays and Singapore Chinese?

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" Malaysia.

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 asked.

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.

Malaysia 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 water issue.

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 ago.

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.

These 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.

In June 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 said.

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 bill."

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.

Singapore 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 says.

"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.

Water has 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.

(Inter Press Service)
Aug 1, 2003

Bridge over troubled waters
(Aug 23, '02)
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