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Anwar’s official visit to Singapore may bring several pressing issues to the fore


When Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia’s prime minister last November, the 75-year-old became the country’s fourth leader in the space of just four years.

The constant changing of the guard, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, not only affected Malaysia’s economy greatly, but also slowed down the pace of progress on several bilateral issues with neighbouring Singapore.

Now that there is more political certainty after the forming of a unity government led by Anwar, who is the de-facto leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, many Malaysians are hopeful that he can help to push for the resolution of some of these longstanding issues and enable both countries to move forward.

Anwar is due to make the short trip to Singapore early next week for his first official visit here since being sworn in as prime minister. Here are some issues that could come up for discussion, both during Anwar’s visit and for the rest of the year and beyond.

Enhancing connectivity

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who recently returned from a trip to Malaysia, said that in the aftermath of the pandemic, one immediate priority between Singapore and Malaysia has been to restore connectivity, which is currently at about 85 per cent of capacity.

He said that Singapore looks forward to the full resumption of air links, as well as to all the other destinations in Malaysia and going beyond the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Before the pandemic, the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore was one of the busiest air routes in the world, with 5.56 million seats available for the roughly one-hour flight in 2019. This number was just behind the Hong Kong-Taipei route, according to travel data provider OAG.

Other than air links, goods and people move back and forth between the two countries on a daily basis via land and water routes.

As many as 900,000 Malaysians are now working in Singapore, according to the Malaysian Employers Federation, and among them, more than a third commute daily from Johor Bahru.

Malaysia and Singapore are working together on the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link, which can transport 10,000 people per hour in each direction once it starts operating by the end of 2026.

It’s anyone’s guess if a revival of the KL-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project, which was terminated in 2021 after both sides failed to reach an agreement, might come up for discussion.

The proposed 350 km link has the potential to shorten the travelling time between Singapore and KL to just 90 minutes, compared to four to five hours by car. Johor’s State Investment, Trade and Consumer Affairs Committee chairman Lee Ting Han said the HSR could create a seamless economic bubble between both countries.

Pedra Branca dispute

The sovereignty over Pedra Branca was brought up by Anwar last December, saying that his government will review the issue and that he hoped to discuss this with Singapore to avoid any further disputes.

Pedra Branca, which is also known as Batu Puteh, is a maritime feature 7.7 nautical miles from Tanjung Penyusup in Johor and about 25 nautical miles from the east of Singapore.

The dispute began in 1979 when Malaysia claimed sovereignty over Pedra Branca on a published map. The case was brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2003 and the ICJ held that Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore.

The previous Barisan Nasional government attempted to seek a revision of the ICJ judgement in 2017 upon discovery of new facts, but the previous Pakatan Harapan government decided to abandon the proceedings when the hearing was set in July 2018.

In October last year, a spokesperson from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Malaysia intended to continue legal action in the ICJ on the issue of sovereignty over Pedra Branca.

“In 2008, the ICJ awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore in the case concerning Sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge. After the Court’s decision, both Singapore and Malaysia publicly announced that they will accept and abide by the Court’s decision which is final,” the spokesperson said.

“Singapore is unable to comment on Malaysia’s latest intentions since no details have been shared. Singapore stands ready to robustly defend our sovereignty over Pedra Branca and will deal with whatever legal action Malaysia may pursue.”

Digital economy and sustainable development

Singapore and Malaysia concluded two frameworks of cooperation on the digital economy and the green economy in August 2022.

The agreement on the digital economy will facilitate cooperation in areas such as trade facilitation and digitalisation of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

On the green economy, both countries will strengthen collaboration to decarbonise their industries and enable businesses to explore opportunities in this space, including next-generation mobility, carbon credits industry collaborations and renewable energy technology standards.


Under the 1962 Water Agreement that expires in 2061, Singapore is entitled to draw up to 250 million gallons a day of raw water from the Johor River at three sen per 1,000 gallons.

Johor is entitled to buy five million gallons a day of treated water from Singapore at 50 sen per 1,000 gallons – a price that the Singapore government said is below the cost of treating the water.

The disagreement on water price began in 1981 and lasted till 2003, when Malaysia’s then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad pushed Singapore to review the price of raw water, but to no avail.

The proposal of a price review was raised again by Dr Mahathir when he took office again in May 2018. However, the negotiation did not happen due to political infighting within the Pakatan Harapan government in 2020.

Over the years, whenever Johor experienced river pollution or severe drought, Singapore’s national water agency PUB accepted Johor’s ad-hoc requests to supply more potable water.

Despite the disagreements, the working relationship between PUB and its counterpart in Johor – Badan Kawalselia Air Johor – remained intact and both agencies are cooperating closely on the Johor River Barrage project, which has been operational since August 2016.

Poultry exports

The ban on live chicken exports announced by former prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in May 2022 – a move to stabilise domestic supplies and prices – affected Singapore’s consumers and food and beverage businesses.

Before the ban, Singapore imported 3.6 million birds a month from Malaysia, one-third of its chicken supply.

The decision also hurt Malaysia’s poultry farmers who are in the export business as around 90 per cent of the export stocks are to Singapore. Poultry farmers urged the government to lift the ban as the monthly exports of 3.6 million birds generate around RM84.2 million (S$26 million) of revenue a month to the country.

The export ban was lifted in phases from October last year, and about 1.8 million birds are exported to Singapore each month, about 50 per cent of the total before the ban.

Singapore imports over 90 per cent of its food from more than 170 countries and regions. The majority of Singapore’s fresh produce comes from Malaysia. Singapore accounted for Malaysia’s largest value of exports among South-east Asian nations at RM232.6 billion last year.