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Sound agreement with Malaysia on HSR vital, Singapore PM says

File picture of Datuk Seri Najib Razak (right) and Lee Hsien Loong witnessing the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Malaysia-Singapore High Speed Rail project at Seri Perdana, July 19, 2016. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng
File picture of Datuk Seri Najib Razak (right) and Lee Hsien Loong witnessing the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Malaysia-Singapore High Speed Rail project at Seri Perdana, July 19, 2016. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

SINGAPORE, Dec 1 — Given the complexity of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project, a sound bilateral agreement that spells out how it will be structured and executed is critical, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“This is the first requirement, that we have a very good agreement which sets out clearly a sound basis to build and operate the system,” said Lee in an interview with Malaysian state news agency Bernama.

Lee added that Singapore and Malaysia are close to concluding the agreement, having made good progress since discussions started more than a year ago.

“We are almost there, and I hope that when I meet Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak at the next retreat, we will be able to sign the agreement,” said Lee in the interview, the transcript of which was released by the Prime Minister’s Office yesterday.

“It is a very ambitious, very complicated and a very expansive project, in terms of scale. We have to try our best to anticipate what the likely issues are, when we build it, when we operate it, and have a clear understanding on how we will deal with it if a situation arises.”

Singapore’s Transport Ministry said two weeks ago that the agreement would be signed early this month.

“We are working towards signing the bilateral agreement on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail at the next leaders’ retreat on Dec 5, 2016,” it said on Nov 14.

In response to TODAY’s queries for an update on the signing, a ministry spokesman said on Tuesday night that there has been “excellent progress” on the negotiations for the agreement.

“Both Malaysia and Singapore are finalising the text and look forward to its signing at the coming Leaders’ Retreat soon,” the spokesman added.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that it is finalising the key deliverables for the leaders’ retreat.

“We are working to hold the retreat soon,” a spokesman added.

In his interview with Bernama on Monday, Lee said that besides having a good agreement, how the project is executed will be crucial.

“The project’s execution will be very important — in designing it, in calling for tenders, evaluating the proposals,” he said. “Several high-speed rail systems in the world have been lobbying very hard to get this contract — the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese high-speed rail,” he noted.

“Each has its strengths, and we will have a very difficult decision evaluating the bidders who come along and deciding which one is the best overall.”

Asked about the issue of construction cost-sharing, Lee noted that this would have to be clearly specified.

“That is one of the things which makes this project complicated because there are two governments involved,” he said. “When you have two authorities involved, you have to decide how to partition, where the line is drawn. I build my part, you build your part, and we have to meet at the same point. If it does not meet then we have a big problem.”

PM Lee added: “It is complicated but there is a will. And there is a good will, and we would like to make it succeed.”

Lee was also asked if a third bridge between Singapore and Malaysia is necessary or viable. He said there are no plans for it at the moment.

“We are not currently planning for a third bridge,” he said. “I have seen some statements in Malaysia suggesting one, but the high-speed rail is a very ambitious project. I would focus all my energies doing that one before we launch a new big project.”

He added that the HSR was an example of how the two neighbours are working together to deepen ties.

“It is not just economic benefits, but it will make it easier for people to go back and forth ... That can only be for good,” he said.

He noted that Singapore and Malaysia enjoy a “very close” relationship, but the two countries are different and both sides can further strengthen ties with deeper interactions.

“Our societies are different — values, cultures and the way we look at the world,” he said. “To improve the relationship, we have to understand each other better, have more intimate interactions to appreciate each other’s perspectives and be able to cooperate despite the contrasts.”

This is important not only at the leaders’ and officials’ level, but also at the people’s level, he added. “The more we see one another and the more we work together on win-win cooperation, the better prospects for friendship and for harmonious relations.” — TODAY

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