KL-Singapore High-Speed Rail project: How the 'game-changer'came to nought

Mooted as early as a decade ago, the High-Speed Rail project linking Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia was billed as a ‘game-changer’. — TODAY pic
Mooted as early as a decade ago, the High-Speed Rail project linking Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia was billed as a ‘game-changer’. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Jan 2 — A grand plan to cut travel time between Singapore and Malaysia from four hours by car to 90 minutes by high-speed rail came to a halt yesterday, a decade after it was mooted by former Malaysian prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said yesterday that both countries failed to reach an agreement on changes proposed by Malaysia by the deadline of December 31, 2020, and a bilateral agreement signed in 2016 on the project would be terminated.

The rail line, which would have linked Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur with Singapore, had been billed as a “game-changer” when both countries officially announced plans to build it in 2013.

The project, in Lee’s words then, would “transform the way people interact, the intensity of our cooperation and the degree to which we become interdependent on one another and, therefore, have stakes in each other’s success”.

Najib had said that it would open up “boundless” opportunities between both countries. “This is huge, this is big, this is a real game-changer.”

The rail line was originally scheduled to start operations by 2026, but the plan has been blighted by delays due to political turmoil in Malaysia and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here is a look-back on the project’s ill-fated journey:

2010: The high-speed rail is identified as a project under Malaysia’s economic transformation programme led by the Najib administration to boost connectivity between Kuala Lumpur, other Malaysian cities and Singapore.

February 19, 2013:  Lee and then-prime minister Najib formally announce the project after their yearly leaders’ retreat. It is to be a 350km rail line with eight stations starting in Kuala Lumpur and ending at Jurong East in Singapore.

May 11, 2015: The Singapore Government gazettes the 67ha Jurong Country Club for acquisition, so that the site can be developed into the Singapore terminus of the high-speed rail.

July 19, 2016: Both governments sign a memorandum of understanding to develop the railway, with plans to get the multibillion-dollar project going by the end of 2026. 

December 13, 2016: Both sides sign a bilateral agreement to build the line.

January 4, 2017: The Singapore Government announces that it would acquire a 143ha area occupied by Raffles Country Club in Tuas to house facilities for the high-speed rail.

February 16, 2017: A consortium of three companies — WSP Engineering Malaysia, Mott MacDonald Malaysia and Ernst & Young Advisory Services — bags a contract to work with the Singapore and Malaysian authorities to oversee the set-up of the railway.

December 20, 2017: Singapore and Malaysia launch a joint tender for an assets company for the project. The company will be responsible for designing, building, financing and maintaining all rolling stock, as well as designing, building, financing, running and maintaining all rail assets. It will also coordinate the system’s network capacity for operations and maintenance needs.

May 28, 2018: The newly elected Pakatan Harapan government led by former Malaysian prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announces that it would cancel the project to reduce the country’s debt. “It’s not beneficial. It’s going to cost us a huge sum of money. We’ll make no money at all from this arrangement,” Dr Mahathir says. He estimates that the project will cost the country RM110 billion, higher than the initial estimate of RM72 billion by the previous Barisan Nasional government. 

July 9, 2018: Singapore’s then-transport minister Khaw Boon Wan tells Parliament that as of May 2018, the Government had spent more than S$250 million on the high-speed rail project. “We can recover value for some of the expenditure, even if the high-speed rail project does not proceed. But a significant amount that has been spent will be completely wasted expenditure if the project does not proceed,” he says.

July 19, 2018: Dr Mahathir says the project would be postponed instead, adding that Malaysia would have to pay a high compensation for scrapping it. 

August 23, 2018: Singapore agrees to put the project on hold at Malaysia’s request, as Malaysia pointed to its staggering RM1 trillion national debt.

September 5, 2018: Both countries agree to postpone the project until May 31 in 2020, with the start of rail operations also delayed from 2026 to 2031. Malaysia agrees to pay Singapore S$15 million for costs incurred in suspending the project.

February 29, 2020: Muhyiddin Yassin replaces Dr Mahathir as Malaysia’s prime minister after Dr Mahathir loses the support of the majority of lawmakers. 

May 31, 2020: Construction, which was scheduled to restart, is once again postponed — this time until the end of 2020 — during an economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Khaw says Malaysia requested a seven-month extension for both sides to discuss and assess Malaysia’s proposed changes to the project. “In the spirit of bilateral cooperation, we have agreed to a final extension of the suspension period,” he notes. 

June 27, 2020: Muhyiddin says that despite the enormous expenses needed to combat the Covid-19 crisis, the country will go ahead with several mega projects that do not need extra funding, including the high-speed rail project with Singapore, in an effort to boost Malaysia’s economy after the pandemic ebbs.

December 3, 2020: Lee and Muhyiddin discuss the high-speed rail project over video conference to take stock of the project’s status. Their offices say the two sides would announce more details in “due course”. The video conference followed reports in the Malaysian media about its government’s plans to go ahead with the project without Singapore’s participation.

January 1, 2021: Both sides officially announce the termination of the high-speed rail project. — TODAY

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