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A missed opportunity to bolster KL-Singapore connectivity

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Sat, Jan 02, 2021 – 5:50 AM

Singapore

THE new year was barely nine hours old when a joint statement released by Singapore and Malaysia on Friday morning delivered the unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected, confirmation that the planned high-speed rail (HSR) linking the two neighbours has been canned.

After being stuck in limbo for more than two years, the ambitious project to link Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with speedy trains that can zip back and forth between both cities in just 90 minutes is officially dead in the water.

It’s a body blow for Asean connectivity and a missed chance to boost business and leisure travel. The impact of the termination will be felt heavily in key sectors such as retail, construction and hospitality, just to name a few.

Tens of thousands of potential jobs have also vanished, now that the HSR agreement – a legally-binding document signed amid much fanfare in 2016 to construct a 350km-long dual-track HSR line – is no longer in force.

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The train service was originally slated to begin in 2020, before it was pushed back to the end of 2026. Two years ago, with the project on hold at Malaysia’s request, the two countries agreed to delay the start date again, to January 2031.

But the writing was on the wall for the HSR as early as May 2018, when Mahathir Mohamad – fresh from sweeping to power at that year’s historic general election – declared that the project was simply too expensive, and announced his intention to shelve it.

Dr Mahathir had said then that the HSR would cost Malaysia RM110 billion (S$36.14 billion), much higher than the earlier estimate of RM72 billion by the previous government under Najib Razak.

From then on, the project began to slowly unravel. In September 2018, Singapore agreed to Malaysia’s proposal to postpone the project. Malaysia had to fork out S$15 million for costs incurred in suspending it.

In February 2020, Malaysia witnessed another leadership change as Muhyiddin Yassin replaced Dr Mahathir after the latter lost the support of the majority of lawmakers.

WITH Malaysia’s economy struggling due to Covid-19, Mr Muhyiddin’s government wanted a number of changes to the HSR proposal but could not reach an agreement with Singapore on these before the suspension period lapsed on Dec 31.

The compensation amount that Malaysia has to fork out was not revealed in the joint statement on Thursday.

It was reported last year that Singapore has already spent in excess of S$250 million on the HSR project.

Some media reports have said that Malaysia will have to pay RM310 million – or just over S$100 million – in compensation to Singapore for terminating the agreement. Whatever the amount is, it is hard to ignore the tremendous loss that the HSR would have brought to both economies over the long run.

According to one estimate, the rail link would have contributed around RM21 billion in gross domestic product to Singapore and Malaysia.

If the HSR had become a reality, it would have been the centrepiece of bilateral relations – a “game-changer”, as leaders from both sides have described it – and brought the two Asean neighbours closer together.

There’s no denying that the scrapping of the project has wasted a precious opportunity to link the two capitals and bring the people and economies closer together.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a press conference four years ago, when two cities are connected together via bullet trains – think Taipei and Kaoshiung in Taiwan, and Shanghai and Nanjing in China – both cities stand to benefit tremendously.

The failure to realise the HSR will, hopefully, not put too much of a dampener on bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia.

It is reassuring that the joint statement on Friday stressed the commitment to cooperate closely in various fields, including strengthening connectivity.

For now, however, the dream of being able to have breakfast in Singapore, hop on a bullet train to Kuala Lumpur for a business meeting over a nasi kandar lunch, and make it back home in time for dinner, will remain just that – a dream.

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