Malaysia’s recent election has triggered a resurgence of old tensions regarding bilateral Water Agreements with Singapore, Tommy Sheng Hao Chai writes.

Singapore Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, responded to the recent election of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad by addressing Mahathir’s intention to change the terms of their existing Water Agreement (WA). Balakrishnan’s response to the WA dispute is a sign of a strategic conflict between the two countries.

For over half a century, Singapore has been getting half its fresh water from its northern neighbour Malaysia. In 1990 the two countries signed their fourth Water Agreement, supplementary to 1962 negotiations.

The current WA does not expire until 2061, but Mahathir has made it clear that he considers the terms unsatisfactory, going so far as to call the deal “manifestly ridiculous” in an interview with NewsAsia. Tensions between Singapore and Malaysia were high during Mahathir’s previous tenure from 1981 to 2003, and he seems determined to pick up where he left off.

Balakrishnan’s speech emphasised Singapore’s three foreign policy principles regarding bilateral ties with Malaysia. These principles aim to uphold international agreements and law, resolve disputes through international law, and preserve Singapore’s reputation as a law-abiding nation.

But explicit foreign policy goals are just the tip of the iceberg – Balakrishnan’s comments suggest that tension is brewing beneath the surface. The Foreign Minister said that the WA is “not an ordinary agreement”. It was formalised in the 1965 Separation Agreement, and “any breach of the WA would call into question the Separation Agreement” and Singapore’s “very existence as a sovereign independent state”.

The remark was a suggestive, yet tepid, reminder of Singapore’s path to independence. Indeed, in the early years of independence Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, promised conflict if Malaysia did not guarantee a reliable water supply.

The remark also closely resembled the words of Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, during the 1998-2002 WA crisis. Balakrishnan was thus reiterating Singapore’s long-standing position that the WA is and will remain an existential issue, and Singapore will follow through with all means at its disposal if Malaysia turns the tide on the WA in ways that undermine the sovereign independence of Singapore.

Balakrishnan further highlighted Singapore’s supply of treated water to Malaysia, reminding Mahathir that his country buys treated water from Singapore at preferential rates under the WA, and that Singapore, too, can raise prices. This is perhaps the most explicit statement of how Singapore will retaliate against Mahathir’s attempt to raise the price of water sold to Singapore.

Singapore’s foreign policy approach to the WA crisis can be summed up in terms of a progressive tit-for-tat retaliation response that maintains Singapore’s principles and reputation as an agent of the rules-based international order. Singapore will ensure that it is not the initiator of any conflict so as to maintain its moral supremacy in the WA dispute, and will assume the role of ‘responder’ to any Malaysian aggression and defection of international principles.

Beyond bilateral negotiations, Singapore will likely make use of international legal dispute mechanisms to settle the WA conflict.

However, should diplomacy fail, and if Mahathir attempts to unilaterally alter the WA regardless of international law, Singapore is ready to give as good as it gets. If Mahathir raises water prices, Singapore will likely mirror the move and increase the price of treated water sold to Malaysia.

If Mahathir threatens to cut off water supply in return, Singapore’s sensitivity for sovereignty will be provoked. Singapore will likely retaliate with sabre-rattling, and continue to frame itself as the victim and Malaysia as the aggressor.

While the waters are looking choppy, Mahathir is unlikely to turn off water supply and allow a drastic escalation of tension. Singapore and Malaysia have an extensive level of complex economic interdependence. Tens of thousands of people cross the Johor–Singapore Causeway and the Tuas Link daily for cross-border economic and family commitments.

Both countries are also tied to their security commitments to the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA). By involving larger external powers and providing a ‘loose consultative framework’, the FPDA acted as a psychological deterrence for Malaysia and Singapore during the formative years of Separation, and throughout the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation.

Today, the FPDA has evolved into a wider and more robust security arrangement that complements other regional architectures, providing both non-traditional security and traditional maritime security cooperation. A military crisis between Singapore and Malaysia over the WA would call into question the existence of FPDA and undermine the security of both parties.

It is more likely that Mahathir is baiting Singapore, but will not allow conflict to escalate beyond barbed words. The Malaysian Prime Minister is “a very canny statesman” according to Nicholas Fang at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Indeed, in a declassified document published by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mahathir was observed to be incrementally changing Malaysia’s “negotiating positions on the package of items” surrounding the WA between 1998 and 2002, before “unilaterally” calling them off when the desired proposals were not achieved.

The terms of the WA may seem to be going under, but it is more likely that Mahathir is creating tension over the deal in order to reframe the tone of Malaysia’s relationship with Singapore. Mahathir is testing the waters, but will not allow tensions to rise too high.

Tommy holds a Bachelor of Arts at the Australian National University. He will be pursuing a Master of Strategic Studies (Advanced) at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in 2019.

This piece is published in collaboration with Policy Forum.

Feature image source: Mietzekatze

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