Singapore Oxford student challenges Mahathir

At the Oxford Union, an interesting exchange took place between Malaysian Prime Minister (PM) Mahathir and a 22-year-old history and politics undergraduate from Singapore.

The two approached the matter of Singapore and Malaysia’s complex relationship. The student, Darrion Mohan, began by saying that Singapore and Malaysia were “again embroiled in an unnecessary and potentially internecine maritime dispute”, referring to the Johor chief minister’s recent intrusion into waters off Tuas.

He then asked Tun Mahathir if any action would be taken against the chief minister, implying that condoning such an act would worsen tension between Singapore and Malaysia. “Would you not agree actions like this contribute to the perception that your government is pugnacious, that your government acts in bad faith and that your government… wants a return to the days of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric?” he asked.

Dr Mahathir did not immediately answer Mr Mohan’s questions, and instead asked if he was a Malaysian.

Mohan then attempted to direct the conversation back to issues he had raised, including the Singapore-KL high speed rail project, the maritime dispute, and calls to revise water supply prices.

Had a great exchange with Malaysian PM Tun Dr Mahathir at the Oxford Union, where I asked him about the ongoing maritime dispute between Singapore and Malaysia. Dr M responded that the 1962 Water Agreement is unfair to Malaysia. 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.Dr M also noted that Singapore has bought water from Malaysia at a fixed price of 3 sen per 1,000 gallons since 1926, and that Singapore has stopped Malaysia from revising the price. This is also inaccurate. Singapore has purchased water at this price since 1962. Under the 1962 Water Agreement, Malaysia had the right to review the price in 1987 (when Dr M was PM). Malaysia chose not to do so.Furthermore, as Singapore's Foreign Minister noted in Parliament earlier this week, Singapore is obliged to sell Malaysia 5 million gallons per day (gpd) of treated water but out of goodwill supplies 16 million gpd. Two weeks ago, at Johor’s request, Singapore further increased the supply of subsidised water to 22 million gpd. In 2018, also at Johor’s request, Singapore supplied more than the usual 16 million gpd for 20 days. All the additional treated water has been supplied to Johor at the subsidised rate of 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, as per the 1962 Water Agreement. I hope that the Mahathir government reciprocates this spirit of goodwill demonstrated by Singapore and approaches negotiations over the airspace and maritime disputes with a constructive attitude. 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.[1][2] Re-posting as my initial post misinterpreted Dr M's argument about Singapore selling water for $60. Thanks Jarel for pointing this out.

Posted by Darrion Mohan on Friday, 18 January 2019
Mr Mohan’s Facebook post stating his response and opinion. More details about what they debated can be read here.

Dr Mahathir responded by saying that the 1962 Water Agreement between the two countries was unfair to Malaysia. On the maritime dispute, Dr Mahathir stated that “the Menteri Besar went without our permission”, adding that “he thought it was Johor waters, that’s why he went there”.

Furthermore, Dr Mahathir said Singapore’s reaction to the intrusion was quite exaggerated, “as if you are going to war”, and described the waters off Tuas as international waters, justifying the intrusion.

Mohan then relinquished his turn for someone else to ask questions, but not before clarifying that the waters were not neutral and were Singapore’s according to a 1979 map that Malaysia had tabled.

On a Facebook post, Mohan pointed out that Dr Mahathir’s statement that it was ‘international waters’ contradicts claims made by Mahathir and the Malaysian transport minister that the waters actually belong to Malaysia.

The Oxford student has drawn some flak from netizens for having a tone that was too aggressive with the statesman. However, in a report by the Straits Times, he said that the Oxford Union (where the exchange took place) was first and foremost a debating society.

“When leaders speak at the Union, there has always been a strong tradition of them being confronted with tough questions and challenged robustly.”

Darrion Mohan in response to the criticism against him

Mohan also told ST he thought it would be “interesting” to hear from Mahathir himself on the ongoing bilateral maritime dispute, adding that a “back-and-forth exchange” like the one he had with Mahathir is “rare”.

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