Malaysia, Singapore Seek to Resolve Water Row

July 1, 2002 - 0:0
KUALA LUMPUR Malaysia and Singapore, the best of neighbors and sometimes worst of rivals, will try this week to reach a landmark pact on the thorniest issue in their relationship -- water.

Differences over the quantity and price of water provided by Malaysia to Singapore has extended into many bilateral problems those officials will try to resolve in two days of talks in Kuala Lumpur beginning today.

But a history of mistrust and doubts over Malaysia's foreign policy after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's scheduled resignation late next year could set back any long-yielding agreement, analysts said.

Led by the foreign ministers of the two countries, the talkshop will see Malaysia tabling a formula for fixing the price of both raw and treated water that it supplies to its tiny island neighbor from its southern state of Johore, officials as said.

The formula, yet to be made public, was proposed by Mahathir to Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in March after several previous talks made little headway.

Long-time observers of relations between the two countries said they did not expect this week's meeting to get beyond setting the stage for further talks.

"Singapore always wants everything its way and the Malaysians are very wary of this, so they keep shifting the goal posts everytime they talk," political commentator M.G.G.

Pillai said.

Pricing was only one aspect of the water problem, he said.

"The Singaporeans ultimately want more water, at the price they are willing to pay, so I don't think all will be ironed out in this one meeting," Pillai told Reuters.

"Over and above all these, we have a very fluid political situation here now with Dr. Mahathir's impending resignation." Mahathir, leader for the past 21 years, will quit in October 2003 in favor of his chosen heir, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in a succession plan unveiled last week.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said that if an agreement on water could be reached at this week's meeting, other bilateral disputes could be resolved as a package.

"We want to see a balance in any decision reached, where Malaysians can be satisfied with the price of water sold and Singaporeans can get guaranteed and adequate supply," he said.

Singapore now pays three Malaysian cents (less than one U.S. cent) for every thousand gallons of raw water piped from Johor.

Senior Minister Lee told reporters after a meeting with Mahathir in September that Singapore has offered to pay 45 Malaysian cents when a supply agreement runs out in 2011 and 60 cents after 2061, with adjustments every five years.

Mahathir later wrote to Lee, proposing a new pricing formula, and the two countries have appeared further apart since.