Jho Low or not, connectivity is the future

Whether or not Mahathir wanted Jho Low out of the Malaysia-China high-speed rail project, rail connectivity is key for continued progress.

Screen Grab of Jho Low.

Some people are hailing the Malaysian East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) with China as a victory for the government of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad while naysayers are adamant it will be a cumulative loss on all fronts.

Those who are angry the deal did not bring fugitive Jho Low back to Malaysia insists the country will end up losing billions with the project, arguing with force and rage that Malaysia should have paid the billions in contract termination payments to China instead.

However, paying China billions means a dismemberment of the country’s future connectivity and opportunities to connect remote areas of Malaysia to the more developed ones.

It also means squandering Malaysian taxpayers’ money into the hands of a country that would not rescind from a deal thought to be inked with intent to rob Malaysia of billions of dollars.

Politically, the new rail network linking Kota Baru in Kelantan to Port Klang in Selangor is now a welcomed deal after the government eliminated the middleman. In the original deal, the middleman (allegedly the 1Malaysia Development Berhad mastermind Jho Low, although no evidence of this has yet surfaced) was to get a hefty RM30mil.

Thus, having paid China contract termination fees would mean the middleman would still get a fair share of Malaysian taxpayers’ money — an political and moral outcome which is not in Mahathir’s favour.

It is undeniable that the ECRL — devised to cover-up a huge scandal under the now defunct kleptocratic regime — can boost the local economy and political gains.

Pursuing the project at a lesser cost ensures it does not burden the country with heavy debts, says the government after it revived the project and managed to avoid paying about RM20 billion in contract termination compensation and penalty charges to China.

The savings and the idea to enhance connectivity along the Malaysian peninsular east coast straight to Kuala Lumpur makes political sense. It makes economic sense too.

Malaysia has a massive fossil fuel problem that contributes to ever rising pollution levels. Is it not time for the public to support policymakers who want to prioritise economic sustainability with low-carbon tech instead of the rapid economic expansion policies of the past?

Among the ways to reduce dependency on fossil fuels would be mass transit, long-distance and high-speed rail networks.

Whether the rail link will be profitable or costing more taxpayers’ money, the name of the game remains connectivity — something that countries around the world are spending billions on improving.

Of the many ongoing long-distance connectivity projects in the world, one similar to the ECRL is Norway’s $47 billion coastal highway.

Among all the considerations, including environmental ones, Bloomberg says the rail link will connect much of the Malaysian peninsular eastern coas that lags in economy to the wealthier western coast, wherein sits Port Klang and the nearby capital city Kuala Lumpur.

In the related matter of the currently-shelved high-speed rail (HSR) project between Singapore and Malaysia, HSR pioneer Alstom had said in 2013 that it was confident it could deliver a high-speed rail project in a cost-effective way without compromising on quality and safety.

This HSR project may be also be revived as Malaysia slowly rebuilds its trust with Singapore after settling the recent water and Seletar Airport issues./TISG

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