(Apr 9): The leaders of neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia agreed Tuesday to amicably resolve a long-running dispute over water that has stoked tensions for decades.

In a joint press briefing, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong said they are open to resolving a disagreement over water prices through arbitration. They also planned to proceed with delimiting the maritime boundary and resolving issues over airspace and a suspended high-speed rail project.

For Singapore, the water pact “is such a sacrosanct item, and therefore let us try to find a way forward that enables us to talk constructively about this issue and hopefully be able to make some progress,” Lee said. “To ask me what is the reasonable water price now is to pre-judge the question.” 

Water has been a main source of dispute between the neighbours, with former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the late father of the leader, saying he was ready to send troops to Malaysia if it tried to turn off the taps. Soon after returning to power last May, Mahathir had sought to revise a water-supply deal that had been unchanged since 1962, calling it “morally wrong.”

Singapore had maintained that Malaysia missed out on the chance to review the price in 1986 and 1987, as the deal was subject to review 25 years after it started. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has called that interpretation of the deal “nonsensical.”

The water pact was part of a separation agreement registered with the United Nations when Singapore broke away from Malaysia in 1965. The countries have since bickered over issues from airspace to tiny islands, although the dispute never escalated beyond mutual badmouthing.

Here are the other issues discussed by the two leaders:

  • Malaysia will seek to take back airspace currently delegated to Singapore in stages, starting from the end of 2019 through 2023 Singapore and Malaysia will proceed to maritime boundary delimitation in the Johor Bahru and Singapore port limits starting next month, with Malaysia aiming to delimit all its outstanding maritime boundaries
  • The countries will continue talks on the high-speed rail link through the suspension period ended May 31, 2020, as Malaysia explores proposal to reduce cost Singapore is considering a six-month suspension for the Johor Bahru-Singapore rapid transit system as Malaysia seeks more affordable alternatives to the project
  • The neighbours consider improving infrastructure and policies to resolve congestion issue at the border