Thursday, 20 August 2015

Neighbours' politics have impact on Singapore's future

By Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

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

Mr 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, Mr Shanmugam told the House: "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 water-scarce island state, is a move by the Kota Tinggi authorities to raise the land assessment tax for the PUB's waterworks in Johor.

That piece of news came through Mr Shanmugam's response to Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) during question time.

Neither issue though sparked follow-up questions or debate in the House. 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. Mr 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 per cent 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 Mr 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," Mr 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. Mr Shanmugam also raised the issue twice with his Malaysian counterpart Anifah Aman, in April this year and again on Aug 4.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also spoke directly to 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," Mr Shanmugam told the House. "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.

Mr 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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