From the outset of the announcement of the water price hike, ministers and Members of Parliament (MP) have tried to explain to the public the rationale behind the move. Unfortunately, the more they tried to shed light, the darker the clouds became.
The public outcry shows that the public is not convinced by the answers given to their questions.
The problem is that there were too many reasons given, some so technical that they flew over the heads of many. Others were nonsensical, as the one given by Lee Bee Wah, MP for Nee Soon GRC.
Hers was among the first explanations reported by the media where she said the hike was necessary “to bring up the awareness” of the value of water. The reaction from the public was swift, and their rebuttal was simple: is increasing the price of water the only way to raise awareness of how important water is?
And then there was the Minister of the Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zulkifli, whose technical explanation in Parliament didn’t assuage the growing unhappiness of the public.
Following his attempt to appease the public was minister Chan Chun Sing, who spoke in a rather halting manner about how “water is existential” to Singapore. His speech was hard to listen to, let alone be convincing, as it meandered from the existential issue to National Service. Again, it flew over everyone’s head.
And so it is good that several days later, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean finally made the issues plain, with simple words laying out the micro and macro context.
“Our struggle to make sure our people have water, is the struggle for Singapore’s survival and independence,” Mr Teo said. Being also the Coordinating Minister for National Security, Mr Teo knows what he is talking about.
“To make sure that we could survive, preserve our independence and thrive, we have taken a strategic approach to planning for water supply,” he added.
There. Simple. Water is a strategic resource, and fundamental to our very survival as a nation. Ok, so it is an existential issue but no need to use big words.
Every Singaporean can understand that, and more importantly, accept it. Anyone who disagrees with this probably has a screw loose somewhere.
This strategic approach, he said, entailed preparing early for future sources of supply.
Again, makes sense.
The DPM explained how Singapore had prepared “many years in advance” to deal with the problem before the expiration of the first water agreement with Malaysia, in 2011. And because of this forward planning, Singapore did not face any disruptions to its water supply when the agreement finally expired. In fact, most Singaporeans were oblivious to it.
And so it is the same this time – the Government needed to plan ahead before the second water agreement with Malaysia expired in 2061, just about 4 decades from now. And this lead time is important as it would take time to seek out alternatives.
By the time the first agreement expired in 2011, there were already 4 taps Singapore could depend on for its water supply – from local catchment, imported water from Johor, Newater and desalinated water.
These were not something which fell from the sky or given by nature, by from meticulous and relentless planning.
DPM Teo also explained how Singapore has invested $7 billion – about $430 million every year – in water infrastructure from 2000 to 2015. This is set to increase to $800 million per year until 2021 for investments in water plants, pipes and pumps.
But infrastructure is one thing, nature is another.
And given that the Linggiu reservoir in Johor has been drying up, Singapore will be further affected if it completely dries up. At the moment, the reservoir is only one-third full.
“This water source is under stress,” he said.
“So we must prepare psychologically to face water shortages if the Linggiu Reservoir fails and dries up, and our reservoirs here also face a very dry year.”
Given all this, and the fact that water prices in Singapore have not increased in 17 years, it is obvious that prices will have to be upped to fund all the new investments needed to prepare ourselves for the inevitable in 2061.
Again, no right-minded person will object that this is not only necessary but also critical.
DPM Teo then turned to the context of the price hike itself.
According to the Straits Times:
“Putting the hike in perspective, Mr Teo held up a bottle of water that costs about $1 at the supermarket, and said that after the full price increase, the same amount will pay for about 1,000 bottles of fresh, clean, drinkable water from the tap.”
In that context, how many would actually say this is unreasonable? $1 would pay for 1,000 bottles of drinkable water from our taps?
The lesson we – and especially the government – can learn from this is: keep it simple, and not try to be too bombastic in your explanation. Keep to the simple facts, explain them plainly and truthfully, and Singaporeans will understand and accept it.
Just as DPM Teo has done.
As for whether households can afford the new price which will come into effect in July, there is no reason why they would not be able to, given that the Government is also giving out rebates and utilities vouchers, especially to the lower-income.
At the end of the day, what we must ask ourselves is: given the situation (the agreement with Malaysia expiring in 2061, and climate change affecting natural supply of raw water), is it not prudent for Singapore to prepare for these? And to do so early?
And if we are to do that, then there is a cost to it – a cost which all must share.