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PM Mahathir clashes with S’porean Oxford undergrad in rare, testy exchange

Candid and informal debate.

A Singaporean Oxford University undergraduate got into a candid, informal debate with Malaysia’s Prime Minister (PM) Mahathir Mohamad yesterday (Jan 18) at the Oxford Union.

Oxford Union (OU) is one of Britain’s oldest student unions and a world-renowned debating society with history stretching back to 1823. The OU describes themselves as the “last bastion of free speech in the Western world”.

Issue on Johor’s Chief Minister’s ‘intrusion’ into disputed waters

Darrion Mohan, a second-year History and Politics undergraduate, first raised the recent issue of Johor’s Chief Minister’s (CM) ‘intrusion’ into the disputed waters. He wanted to know if PM Mahathir would be taking any action against Johor’s CM and if there will be any measures in place to ensure “something like this would not happen again”.

(For context, read: Putrajaya refutes MB Osman’s claim he received “unofficial blessing” for Pedoman visit)

PM Mahathir said that Johor’s CM went to the disputed waters “without our (federal government) permission” but the “reaction to his going there is quite severe, as if we are going to war. He is going into a ship into neutral waters.”

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PM Mahathir: Disputed waters are “neutral waters”, and “not Singapore waters”

In rebutting PM Mahathir’s claim that the disputed waters are “neutral waters”, Darrion said “the waters are not neutral waters…even in your 1979 map that we (Singapore) don’t recognise, you haven’t actually claim those before until you suddenly came out last year and said these are now suddenly Malaysia’s territorial waters.”

(For context, read: S’pore-M’sia territorial dispute: Timeline of events dating back to 1927 to present)

The Malaysian premier then said: “It is not Singapore waters either. It is international waters and the Menteri Besar can go into international waters without Singapore sending warships to chase him away”.

“I fundamentally disagree”, said the undergraduate.

Darrion further elaborated his point in a Facebook post published today (Jan 19):

“Finally, during our exchange, Dr M repeatedly referred to the disputed waters off Tuas as “international waters”. This contradicts previous statements from both Dr M [1] as well as the Malaysian Transport Minister [2], who stated that the disputed waters within the new Johor port limits are Malaysia’s territorial waters. Dr M’s concession that these are in fact international waters significantly undermines Malaysia’s initial claim.”

“Your government is pugnacious; your government acts in bad faith”

Darrion then posited another question asking if PM Mahathir agreed that such unilateral action by Johor’s CM “contributes to the perception that your government is pugnacious, that your government acts in bad faith, and that your government – in the words of Najib Razak (Malaysia’s former PM) – wants to return to the days of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric.”

“I think you are not a Malaysian citizen so you have no right. Are you malaysian?”

In what seemed to be a misunderstanding of the question posed, PM Mahathir responded by saying that Darrion is “welcomed to choose Najib” but that he has no right in doing so as he is not a Malaysian. PM Mahathir then asked: “Are you a Malaysian?”

Darrion sidestepped the nationality question but clarified that he “wasn’t choosing Najib over you (PM Mahathir)” and that he “simply quoted Najib’s views on your foreign policy.”

Darrion then rephrased his question: “The question is whether through your actions over the high-speed rail, the airspace, the maritime dispute, the crooked bridge, the water price revision; you want to return to the fraught diplomatic ties with Singapore that we saw during your initial tenure as PM or if you want to go beyond that.”

PM Mahathir gives history lesson on Singapore-Malaysia water price dispute

In responding to Darrion’s question, PM Mahathir chose to argue his point further on the Singapore-Malaysia water price dispute. He said: “Singapore buys water from Malaysia at 1 Singapore cent…..since 1926…you mean to say prices don’t change?”

For context: Singapore relies on Malaysia for nearly half of its water needs through water agreements, the first of which dates back to 1927, not 1926. The current accord signed in 1962, which expires in 2061, gives Singapore 250 million gallons of raw water daily at 3 sen per 1,000 gallons, and Malaysia buys back a portion of that at 50 sen (S$0.17 cents) per 1,000 gallons.

Darrion then shot back: “Malaysia has had the opportunity to revise the 1962 water agreement and Singapore sells treated water back to Johor at a subsidised price and we sell 11,000 gallons per day, more than what we are obligated to do under the agreement.”

“Well do you think that buying water at 3 sen per thousand gallons and then selling it at 60 dollars per thousand gallons of clean water…do you think that is fair to Malaysians that we received 3 sen” said the Malaysian premier.

Darrion responded, “It may not be fair”, before the hall burst into raucous laughter. He then reiterated that Singapore – out of goodwill – “has sold more water at a subsidised price. We’ve sold 11,000 (gallons) more per day than what we are obliged to.”

Darrion further pressed the PM on the water agreement price revision: “Malaysia had the chance to revise the water agreement but you didn’t take the chance.”

PM Mahathir said: “I took the chance before but Singapore refuses…to go to the Court for that.”

Malaysia chose not to review water price agreement despite PM Mahathir saying he “took the chance” to renegotiate the accord

According to reports, Malaysia chose not to review the price when allowed to do so in 1987, but talks took place when PM Mahathir, then Prime Minister, raised the issue in 1998. The talks did not result in a new pact.

In July 2018, Singapore’s Foreign Affairs minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament that PM Mahathir had noted in 2002 that Malaysia did not ask for a review when the water pact was due, as it knew that any revision would also affect the price of treated water sold by Singapore to Malaysia.

In understanding the context of the “60 dollars per thousand gallons of clean water” as stated by PM Mahathir, Darrion said in his follow-up Facebook post:

“During our exchange, I understood his argument to mean that it was unfair for Malaysia to sell untreated water to Singapore at 3 sen per 1,000 gallons but buy treated water from Singapore at $60 per 1,000 gallons.

Thinking that $60 per 1,000 gallons seemed strangely high, I subsequently double-checked this. It turns out that that Dr M was referring to the price at which Singapore’s PUB sells water domestically (approximately RM 60 per 1,000 gallons).

Singapore sells treated water to Johor at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons. Dr Mahathir thinks this is unfair but I disagree. Given that it costs Singapore RM 2.40 to treat 1,000 gallons of water, Singapore subsidises the water by RM 1.90 per 1,000 gallons. Johor sells this treated water to Malaysians at RM 3.95 per 1,000 gallons – meaning Johor earns a profit of RM 3.45 per 1,000 gallons.”

See the video of the full exchange below:
(If you can’t see the video, click here.)

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