Joint Press Conference Q&A at the 9th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 9 April 2019

PM Lee Hsien Loong held a joint press conference with Malaysian PM Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad at Putrajaya on 9 April 2019 for the 9th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat. The Q&A segment begins at the 17:45 timestamp in the video.


Q: (Afifah Ariffin from Mediacorp) Tun, Singapore and Malaysia have had more than 50 ministerial visits in the last year. This is the first retreat between Singapore and the new Pakatan Harapan government. How do you see ties developing even further during your current term?

PM Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad: Ties between Singapore and Malaysia have always been good, at least we are always on talking terms. If we have problems, we air our problems, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. What we have not done is that we have not confronted each other, or even suggest that we should resolve our problem through violent action like going to war with Singapore. This is not a minor achievement. If you look throughout the world, most countries with problems with their neighbors try to solve their problems through violence and through wars. In the end, both sides will lose. That is our relation with Singapore. It is a relation between, I think, two civilised people who do not believe in violence.

PM Lee Hsien Loong: I should add that, as two close neighbours, we have worked very hard to develop and manage this relationship. We have become different over the years, especially after 1965, the societies have evolved in different directions. The political systems have developed differently. But if you look at it within ASEAN context, or within a global context, in fact, Singapore and Malaysia are very similar countries. In terms of heritage, in terms of our rule of law, in terms of the connections we have with one another, and the comfort we have with one another, we even argue who invented some of our foods first. So, there is an enormous overlap. Therefore, there is a tremendous potential for us to move ahead in a cooperative and mutually beneficial way, provided we work at the relationship and understand where you get the best satay, whether it is the Esplanade, Gardens by the Bay, or whether you can get it at Satay Majid or Satay Kajang, or something like that.

Q: (Wan Zarul Azri from Media Prima Malaysia) To Mr Lee, does Singapore view Malaysia’s requests for the water agreement revision as reasonable, and how much is the reasonable price do you think?

PM Lee: Well, whether I answer the second question depends on the answer to the first question. I think I told Dr Mahathir, I can understand his perspective why he sees a political necessity to ask, to press hard for a water price revision. But I also explained to Dr Mahathir to see it from Singapore's point of view, that this was an agreement reached between the two water authorities – PUB on Singapore side, and in those days, I think it was a Johor water department, now it has become Bakaj, in 1962; subsequently guaranteed by the two governments – at the federal level, and in Singapore at the national level; in 1965, in the Separation Agreement. So it is a fundamental founding document for us, and we have to go according to this document. It is a basic term on which the two countries decided to manage our relationships. So if you look at it, from that point of view, to be able to change that, is a very high hurdle. Because the first Prime Minister who signed it did not change it. The second Prime Minister who negotiated a package deal with Malaysia, in the end, there was no final agreement, and the agreement – the water price was not changed. So now I can understand Dr Mahathir’s perspective, but I also asked him, I hope that he will be able to see Singapore's perspective, why this is such a sacrosanct item. Therefore, let us try to find a way forward which enables us to talk constructively about this issue, and hopefully be able to make some progress. One of the items we also have to talk about is the security of the supply of the water from Johor, including the pollution and including the yield, to make sure that in fact Singapore is able to get the 250 million gallons, which is what is specified under the water agreement. So on that basis, the ministers will talk, I think to ask me what is a reasonable water price now, is to prejudge the question.

Q: (Norhaiza Hashim from Berita Harian) With the overlapping port limit having been suspended, when do you expect the maritime boundary delimitation in the area to begin and which agencies will do the negotiation?

PM Lee: I think the committee has been formed, the agreement is to begin within a month. I do not know exactly which agencies but I am sure MFA will be involved, Ministry of Law will be involved, MPA certainly will be involved, AGC will certainly be involved, whichever ministries need to be there, will be there. And on the Malaysian side, I am sure they will more than match us.

Q: (AFP) Do you think the recent maritime and airspace disputes will have a lasting damage on ties between the two countries? And do you see ties improving after today's meeting.

PM Lee: It depends on how they are managed. I mean, these are continuing issues because we will always have maritime boundaries with each other. We will always have civil aviation needs in both countries, there is also a need to agree on arrangements for managing the air space. So, if it is managed well, then it can be productive for both countries and the overall relationship can prosper. If it is not managed well, it can cause a lot of trouble and poison the overall relationship. And it is because I was worried that things were not going in the right direction, that was the reason why in December, I wrote a letter to Dr Mahathir and asked DPM Teo to come to visit Putrajaya together with Minister Heng Swee Keat, to deliver the letter and to explain to Dr Mahathir in person, what my concerns were. And I am very happy that Dr Mahathir gave them a hearing, took in what they said and took action on the Malaysian side, which enabled our ministers to meet their ministers and to turn things around gradually to bring them to where we are today. So, we have now as T. S. Eliot says, “We have come back to our starting place, and we are recognising it for the first time.” 1

Q: (MalaysiaKini) Singapore's new protection from the Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill has gotten international criticism. I mean, Reporters Without Borders has said that the law censors internet users and gives a large amount of discretionary power to the government. Malaysia is moving in the opposite direction with the Anti-Fake News Act. To the Singaporean prime minister, what is your response to concerns about this Bill?

PM Lee: I am not familiar with the details of the Malaysian Anti-Fake News Act but would be surprised if it is the same provision as what is now POFMA – Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. This is a problem – the problem of fake news of deliberate false statements being proliferated online – is a serious problem which confronts many countries. Singapore is not the only one who is legislating on this issue. The French have done so, the Germans have done so, the Australians have just done something similar and very draconian. The British is thinking of doing things as well. So Singapore has had to do it and we have had a long process of the Select Committee publish a report. We have deliberated on this for almost two years now. Well, the Select Committee was last year, but we started thinking about it even long before that. And finally we have got this bill. It is going to be debated in the House and I hope eventually, it will become legislation. So I am not surprised that Reporters Without Borders criticised it. They criticise many things about Singapore's media management but what we have done has worked for Singapore, and is our objective to continue to do things which will work for Singapore. And I think POFMA will be a significant step forward in this regard.

PM Mahathir: Well, in the case of Malaysia, we have made a promise that we will do away with Anti-Fake News rule. That is because this is what the people want and we respect the people who actually voted us into power. On the other hand, of course, we know that the President’s social media can be abused quite seriously. For us, that means that we have to learn how to handle such fake news but when we have a law that prevents people from airing their views, then we are afraid that the government itself may abuse the law, like what has happened in the last government. We do not want any government – this one and succeeding one – to make use of the law in order to tell fake news, the government to create fake news in order to sustain themselves. But of course, it will be difficult to handle. But we believe that we can accept the challenges and we can handle them.

[1] The full quote from T.S Elliot is, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Foreign affairs