KUALA LUMPUR (July 25): Malaysia will honour the water agreement with Singapore while seeking to restart negotiations on pricing, said Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who described discussions over the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) as the "immediate and urgent" concern between the two neighbours.
Datuk Saifuddin, who is due to visit Singapore next week for a meeting of Asean foreign ministers, waved away concerns about "turning off the taps", saying such a move "is definitely not in our mind".
"Water is like our nerve system. We honour our nearest neighbour. Malaysia and Singapore have always enjoyed that special relationship. The idea is how we go about to continue from where we have stopped in the negotiation," he told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview yesterday.
Mr Saifuddin said "water is a long story" with "nothing concrete decided" except that "we will continue talking to" Singapore.
"What is immediate and urgent is to resolve the HSR story," he said, adding that Malaysia has agreed to a "proper discussion" by next Tuesday. "We understand certain parts of the agreement will confine us to more or less agreeing to continue but again, these are things that we want to negotiate. I believe that our Singapore counterpart will understand some of the difficulties the new government is faced with as far as this project is concerned."
Soon after winning the May 9 election, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government had said it wanted to review the 350km rail project agreed to by the ousted Najib Razak administration, as well as to renegotiate the terms of the 1962 water deal.
Both pacts are legally binding international agreements.
Kuala Lumpur said it could not afford the RM110 billion (S$37 billion) projected cost for the HSR, after discovering it had more than RM1 trillion in liabilities. But due to cancellation penalties in the pact, it would have to discuss options with Singapore, including a deferment.
Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali will lead negotiations on the HSR, and has said he will try to hold talks by the end of the month.
The water agreement, which expires in 2061, sees Singapore drawing up to 250 million gallons a day (mgd) of raw water from the Johor River, and Johor entitled to 5mgd of treated water from Singapore.
Singapore pays 3 sen (1 Singapore cent) per thousand gallons of raw water, and sells treated water back to Johor at 50 sen per thousand gallons. Singapore has said this price is heavily subsidised and below the cost of treating the water.
Malaysia chose not to review the price when allowed to in 1987, but talks took place when then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad raised the issue in 1998. The talks did not result in a new pact.
Mr Saifuddin, who is PH chief secretary, also said Malaysia could learn from Singapore in maintaining religious harmony. "I think they have done a good job," he said. "We have our issues, they have their issues, but to a certain extent, they have done quite well and we can emulate, if not all, at least the spirit behind the experience that they have gone through."