Singapore and Malaysia clash over water and high-speed rail link

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir wants to withdraw from agreements signed by the two countries on a rail link and the sale of water. Singapore asks for explanations and calls for "respect for the sanctity of international agreements".

Singapore (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad plans to review some agreements with Singapore and this is causing tensions between the two Southeast Asian countries.

One controversy is a high-speed railway line (HRS) between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore; the other is the price of water the city-state pays to its neighbour.

Once hailed as a "game-changer" by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the proposed 350km-long HSR line would reduce travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to around 90 minutes by train, from the current 11 hours.

The HRS deal was first unveiled in February 2013 by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Najib. The two countries signed a legally binding bilateral agreement on the project in 2016, paving the way for its implementation.

Construction on the project – whose estimated cost is around US$ 12.4 billion – was due to start this year, with the line expected to begin operations in 2026.

The rail link was expected to contribute US$ 4.9 billion to the economies of Malaysia and Singapore, as well as create 111,000 jobs by 2060.

However, almost three weeks after his election victory on May 28, Mahathir said the project is not "beneficial", that it would “make no money at all” for Malaysia. In fact, it would cost the country US$ 28 billion without bringing "a single cent".

Singapore's Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament on Monday that Malaysia has not replied to a diplomatic note sent on 1 June asking it to clarify its position on the HSR project.

"The public statements made by the Malaysian ministers, and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir himself, on the termination of the project have not been followed through with any official communications to us," Mr Khaw said. Thus, Singapore has been “left with no choice” but to continue with its end of the agreement, he added.

According to Mr Khaw, Singapore has spent more than US$ 185 million on the project as of May 2018. Another US$ 30 million is expected to be spent from August to the end of this year.

Asked about the matter at a press conference, Mahathir, 92, said, "As far as the Singapore government is concerned, we have not given them full notice yet, but they know what we want to do".

Pressed on what it was Malaysia wanted to do about the HSR, Dr Mahathir responded that the journalist should refer to press reports.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament that both countries must “fully respect the sanctity of international agreements, and that any disputes are resolved peacefully in accordance with international law."

The minister also spoke on another issue that has caused friction in recent weeks with Malaysia’s new government, namely the 1962 Water Agreement.

On 25 June, Mahathir said that the price of water sold in Singapore was "manifestly ridiculous", adding that Malaysia would request to renegotiate the terms of the water supply contact.

Balakrishnan said the water pact is no ordinary agreement and is guaranteed by both Singapore and Malaysia in the 1965 Separation Agreement.

“Any breach of the 1962 Water Agreement would call into question the Separation Agreement, which is the basis for Singapore’s very existence as an independent sovereign state,” he said.