The surprise statement came during a rainy spell and when the seven dams in Malaysia’s richest, most populous state were full.
Reserves of treated water in the opposition-controlled state of Selangor were perilously low, the water company supplying a population of 7 million in the country’s main industrial base said. It was seeking approval to start immediate rationing.
For many it looked like politics, not water, was behind the problem — a measure of how high tensions are running ahead of national elections that must be called by early next year and which could be the closest in Malaysia’s history.
“Of course, it’s a political conspiracy,” Selangor State executive council member and opposition member of parliament Teresa Kok said.
The July 14 announcement has set off an ill-tempered battle between the opposition-run state and the federal government that foreshadows an intense election struggle for the crucial swing state that is a base for multinationals including Panasonic Corp and British American Tobacco.
The state leadership says the ruling coalition is using water supplier Syabas to manufacture a water crisis and sow doubts in voters’ minds over the opposition’s competence.
Syabas, a unit of Puncak Niaga Bhd, has links with Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Puncak Niaga chairman and Syabas executive chairman Rozali Ismail is the treasurer of the party’s Selangor branch and was dubbed Malaysia’s “water king” by Forbes, which ranks him as the country’s 37th richest person.
The federal government says the state has jeopardized its water supply by blocking the construction of a 3.8 billion ringgit (US$1.2 billion) treatment plant.
“If we can make Malaysia the global center for IPOs [initial public offerings], how can it be that we can’t resolve water issues,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted as saying last week by the Star newspaper, referring to several big stock debuts in Malaysia this year.
The problem could be resolved, he said, once the people of Selangor “choose a government that can do it.”
As Malaysia’s traditional engine of growth, the west-coast state was a prized, unprecedented win for the opposition in the last election in 2008 and the most potent symbol of the ruling coalition’s worst election performance.
Wresting back the state would help lay to rest doubts about Najib’s leadership within his own party and help the coalition rebound nationwide. For the opposition, retaining Selangor is crucial if it is to have any chance of winning a parliamentary majority and forming a government for the first time.
The state has been at the center of concerns over voter fraud, with the opposition accusing the government of handing out voting rights to thousands of illegal immigrants.
“The stakes are the highest in Selangor. The prime minister really needs to win it back,” said Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst and lecturer at Kuala Lumpur’s private UCSI university.
The perceived performance of the four opposition controlled states will be a crucial campaign issue as the three-party opposition alliance tries to convince voters it is capable of running the country.
Syabas’ shock warning of water rationing this month prompted indignant state officials to pose for pictures in front of dams brimming with water to show there was no shortage.