(Mar 4): Singapore and Malaysia leaders are once again butting heads over water, a sore point between the two countries over the years.

The city-state’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s comments about a water agreement were a “red herring” and the pact must be fully honoured. He was responding Friday in parliament to a question seeking comment about Mahathir’s remarks this week that the deal is “morally wrong” and Malaysians in the neighbouring state of Johor should protest.

“These are strong, emotive words, no doubt intended to rouse public opinion.” Balakrishnan said. “I’m supposed to be diplomatic. But I think members of this House also know that I call a spade a spade. This is a red herring.”

Water is a long-standing issue of contention between the two countries. Singapore has relied on neighbouring Malaysia for nearly half of its water needs through agreements, the first of which dates back to 1927. The remaining 1962 accord, 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 per 1,000 gallons.

Mahathir said that Singapore as a richer nation has been benefiting from Malaysia on the water issue, and the supply of water to Singapore enabled the country to rapidly develop, the Bernama news agency reported Thursday, citing the premier’s comments at the Johor government retreat with the federal cabinet.

Johor’s Chief Minister Osman Sapian said a day later in a Facebook post that the state is planning to end its dependence on Singapore for the state’s treated water supply, without providing a timeline.

Singapore’s Balakrishnan said Friday the water agreement is not about who is richer or poorer, but about the fundamental principle of respecting the sanctity of agreements. The country’s longstanding position has been that neither sides can unilaterally change the terms of the deal, he said.

“Singapore has no natural resources; we are even short of water,” he said. “But Singaporeans have long internalised that no one owes us a living.”