Sin­ga­pore’s fu­ture de­pends on the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of its neigh­bor­ing coun­tries


Two brief state­ments by Sin­ga­pore’s Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs K. Shan­mugam yesterday brought home how closely the fate of Sin­ga­pore is re­lated to the in­ter­nal pol­i­tics of its clos­est neigh­bors.

Shan­mugam de­liv­ered a min­is­te­rial state­ment on Mon­day night’s bomb blast in cen­tral Bangkok, which killed a young Sin­ga­porean woman and in­jured seven other Sin­ga­pore na­tion­als.

No one has claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack. Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts say the per­pe­tra­tors could be from rad­i­cal anti- gov­ern­ment fac­tions op­posed to the rul­ing mil­i­tary junta, or from sep­a­ratist groups in Thai­land’s south.

Stat­ing Sin­ga­pore’s po­si­tion, Shan­mugam told the Sin­ga­pore Par­lia­ment: “We strongly con­demn this heinous at­tack. As we have said sev­eral times, noth­ing can jus­tify the killing of in­no­cent civil­ians. This is the latest in a long se­ries of such at­tacks. Un­for­tu­nately, it will not be the last.

“The Thai author­i­ties have launched in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Those re­spon­si­ble for this act must be brought to jus­tice.”

Less dra­matic, but with se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for the fu­ture of this wa­ter­scarce is­land state, is a move by the Kota Tinggi author­i­ties to raise the land as­sess­ment tax for the Sin­ga­pore Public Util­i­ties Board’s ( PUB) water­works in the south­ern Malaysian state Jo­hor, close to Sin­ga­pore.

That piece of news came through Shan­mugam’s re­sponse to Si­toh Yih Pin dur­ing ques­tion time.

Nei­ther is­sue though sparked fol­lowup ques­tions or de­bate in Par­lia­ment. Per­haps they will at a later date.

In­stead, most of yesterday’s sit­ting fo­cused on is­sues of a strictly do­mes­tic na­ture, es­pe­cially those that have an ef­fect on peo­ple’s pock­ets and daily com­mutes, from the price and value of hawker food, to the caps set on sums in Medis­ave ac­counts and im­prove­ments to bus and MRT ser­vices.

Wa­ter, of course, meets a need more ba­sic than any of the above.

But Sin­ga­pore­ans have, over the decades, come to take for granted a steady, un­in­ter­rupted sup­ply of clean and rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive wa­ter.

Shan­mugam’s cau­tion­ary note on the sit­u­a­tion in Jo­hor is a re­minder of the hard work — in diplo­macy, in­vest­ment, plan­ning, build­ing and main­te­nance — that goes into en­sur­ing that sup­ply.

Un­der the 1962 Wa­ter Agree­ment with Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore can draw up to 250 mil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter a day from the Jo­hor river. That meets up to 60 per­cent of the coun­try’s needs to­day.

That agree­ment is due to ex­pire only in 2061 and un­der it, Sin­ga­pore’s PUB is not obliged to pay the land as­sess­ment tax that the Kota Tinggi Dis­trict Coun­cil has sought to im­pose.

The PUB owns and op­er­ates Jo­hor River Wa­ter Works, which ex­tracts and treats wa­ter from the Jo­hor River.

Based on the chronol­ogy that Shan­mugam gave, the Kota Tinggi Dis­trict Coun­cil had is­sued a no­tice late last year that sought to dou­ble the rate of land as­sess­ment tax im­posed on the PUB.

“The re­vised rate was more than dou­ble that of the next high­est rate in the en­tire Kota Tinggi dis­trict. The wa­ter works’ as­sessed prop­erty value was also in­creased. The new rate was ap­plied to a cat­e­gory which was cre­ated solely for the PUB,” Shan­mugam said.

He in­di­cated that the Jo­hor author­i­ties also sought to im­pose such taxes in the past, but did not want to go into the de­tails.

Sin­ga­pore has reg­is­tered its con­cern with the Malaysian Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs through two third-party notes, a form of of­fi­cial diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dence.

Shan­mugam also raised the is­sue twice with his Malaysian coun­ter­part Ani­fah Aman, in April this year and again on Aug. 4.

Sin­ga­pore Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong also spoke di­rectly to Malaysia Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak on the mat­ter dur­ing their lead­ers’ re­treat in May.

“Malaysia is aware that the is­sue of PUB’s rights un­der the wa­ter agree­ment is crit­i­cal and sen­si­tive for us,” Shan­mugam told the Par­lia­ment.

“The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has in­di­cated that it would work with the Jo­hor state gov­ern­ment to ad­dress our con­cerns.”

The dif­fi­culty, of course, is that un­der Malaysia’s fed­eral sys­tem, the state author­i­ties, in­clud­ing those in Jo­hor, may not al­ways see eye- to- eye with the na­tional lead­ers in Kuala Lumpur.

That is a ten­sion in­her­ent in Malaysian pol­i­tics and which Sin­ga­pore’s lead­ers have to nav­i­gate.

Sin­ga­pore­ans need to un­der­stand that the cer­tainty of wa­ter sup­ply de­pends on such un­cer­tain­ties.

Shan­mugam’s up­date on the sit­u­a­tion in Jo­hor was an at­tempt to nudge the public to value and con­serve the wa­ter they have such ready ac­cess to, be­cause its sup­ply is far from easy to se­cure.

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