Singapore — There was a time when the Singapore-Malaysia High-Speed Rail (HSR) link project was seen as an olive branch of sorts, an opportunity to bury the hatchet between the neighbouring countries, according to a report in scmp.com (South China Morning Post) on Sunday (Jan 10).
Unfortunately, the bilateral agreement for the HSR, signed on Dec 31, 2016, under Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, expired at midnight on Dec 31, 2020 after Singapore and Malaysia could not come to an agreement regarding the changes the latter country wanted.
Mr Najib, in particular, had hoped the new HSR project would help leave behind some of the acrimonious issues between the two countries.
The report further states that it is far more likely for the political impact to be felt in Malaysia than in Singapore, given that it was Mr Najib’s successor, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who ultimately decided to do away with the project.
Mr Najib has criticised Mr Muhyiddin for the cancellation of the project, and so has opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Mr Najib implied that the Prime Minister wanted to remove an open tender for the “assets company” that the two countries would have set up to manage the project together, in order to extend favors to those who are close to him.
The Malaysian government, however, promptly refuted this.
Malaysia had insisted on the removal of the “assets company”, which Singapore could not agree to. This removal would have been a “fundamental departure from the HSR bilateral agreement”, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung told Parliament recently.
And while the option to cancel had been included in the agreement, it has also meant that Malaysia now owes Singapore a yet-undisclosed amount likely to be greater than S$100 million. Malaysia already paid Singapore S$15 million two years ago due to the delays in the development of the project after Mr Najib lost in the 2018 election.
According to a report in nst.com.my (New Straits Times) on Monday (Jan 10), the amount Malaysia is required to pay as compensation for the project will likely be submitted by Singapore by the end of January.
The authorities have said this amount is not a punitive one and that the decision to terminate the project is part of the bilateral agreement.
“Once they (Singapore) submit it to us, we will do our due diligence to ensure the claims are justified and can be verified,” the chief executive officer of project owner MyHSR Corp, Mr Mohd Nur Ismal Mohamed Kamal, is quoted as saying by the New Straits Times.
In Malaysia, some have supported the Prime Minister’s decision to scupper the project, given that the Covid-19 pandemic has, and will continue to, strain Malaysia’s financial resources.
“Economic contractions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have shifted energy and resources away from projects such as the HSR,” SCMP quotes Dr Francis Hutchinson as saying. Dr Hutchinson, of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, has kept a close eye on developments in Malaysia.
He added that political developments have also made the HSR project a lesser priority.
“The Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional administrations inherited quite a challenging fiscal situation from the Najib Razak administration.
“This included several large-scale projects and schemes that incurred high debt levels, such as 1MDB and the East Coast Rail Link. These absorbed large quantities of resources, making the implementation of a project such as the HSR more difficult,” he said.
SCMP also quotes Mr Tai Tuck Leong, a Malaysia-based transport planning and traffic management analyst, as outlining the benefits of the cancellation for Malaysia.
“The HSR will be used mainly by Malaysians going to Singapore. Singaporeans coming to Malaysia is a very seasonal thing. More people living in Malaysia fly to Singapore as well, as Singapore is a key transit hub. The HSR will just become a feeder system for Singapore.”
He called the link project “a disservice”, that would “consolidate the unequal relationship between us and an island of 6 million people”.
“Our financial sector will move there, our economic hubs will shift and we will simply bring our resources into Singapore faster – which is not something we should be doing.
“If we build this, Johor Bahru will forever be neglected, an appendix to Singapore. We would consolidate the unequal relationship between us and an island of 6 million people.”
The proposed link between the capital and Johor Bahru would serve the country better, he told SCMP. /TISG