“Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink (in Penang)”

I WAS having a conversation with a Singaporean about the frequency of water cuts in the republic. While he cannot remember, he said there has nevertheless been emergency preparedness in the eventuality of water cut or shortages.

I still remember that right after its political independence, the first thing Singapore did was to ensure uninterrupted water supply based on the multiple sources.

Unlike so many leaders in the region, its former prime minister (PM) and later senior minister Lee Kuan Yew said that the development of Singapore must be based on priorities. He went on to solve the water problem first.

Penang has many historical similarities with Singapore especially on water dependence. If Singapore can reduce its water dependence on Malaysia, why can’t Penang take a similar approach, granted that Penang is not country like Singapore?

When Lee visited Penang and others parts of Peninsula Malaysia in 2009, he was not impressed by the developments in Penang. Although he never talked about the problem of water, there was something about development that was not to his liking.


Penang has been dependent on Kedah for its water since time immemorial. Some 80% of the state’s water needs are from Sungai Muda with its source being the water catchment area of Ulu Muda.

Despite the sabre rattling of the present Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor for payment of water royalty, the principle of Riparian Rights has allowed Penang to draw unimpeded water from Sungai Muda.

Despite the dependence on Kedah, the successive state governments in Penang have failed to reduce its water dependence on its northern meighbour.

No solid solution in sight

The Federal government which has a constitutional responsibility in ensuring adequate water supply has failed to guide not only Penang but other states in addressing the long-term water supply situation.

It is not that Penang does not want to reduce its dependence by seeking alternative sources of water supply from rivers, the desalination process, underwater sources and drawing water from the neighbouring states.

Today the much-talked possible water supply is about purchasing treated water from Sungai Perak.

I heard it might take another six years to get this water supply. Meanwhile, no alternative sources of water supply have been thought about apart from the water drawn from Sungai Muda and the reservoirs on the island.

Unlike Singapore, Penang does not visionary state leaders who can think out of the box. The situation has made worse by federal leaders who more bent on punishing Penang more than anything else.

It might be difficult to find leaders like Lee but surely leaders with political will could emerge to take Penang from the present water shortage entrapment.

The present Penang state leaders are constrained by their dependence on the federal government, the lack of investment capital to modernise the water industry, the low water rates and other encumbrances.

The very recent need to cut water supply for four days (tentatively Jan 10-14) should not have come about in this age of science, technology and engineering marvels.

The need to cut water supply for four days to replace the worn-out main valves is sad recognition of the state of Penang’s water industry.

It is obvious that the water industry – once pride of Penang – has not kept pace with the development of science, technology and engineering in the maintenance of pipes and others.

It might not be fair for Penang to be compared with Singapore but surely the early boasts of Penang water industry as the best in comparison with the other states might not hold in the future.

If Penang can boast of a modern industrial state in Malaysia, its water industry is still caught in the entrapment of Third World woes.

The four-day water cut has been a big disappointment to the industries in Penang. Some companies which are more dependent on water than others are shutting down their operations for few days in view of the water cut.

The Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow has said that his conscience would not allow him to postpone the water cut or leave the matter to others.

I say conscience or not, it is high time the water industry is modernised with the diversification of water sources. What is needed is political will and statesmanship to tackle the water woes under conditions of “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” – Jan 12, 2024.


Former DAP stalwart and Penang chief minister II Prof Ramasamy Palanisamy is chairman of the Urimai (United Rights of Malaysian Party) Interim Council.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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