Strong reactions in Malaysia to termination of HSR project

The termination of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project has drawn strong reactions in Malaysia, with two state governments urging the government to continue with the project, while members of the public clamour for more details on what went wrong.

Some said that while Covid-19 was partly to blame for the termination as the government needed to divert funds to fight the pandemic, the multibillion-dollar project would have helped local economies rebound faster from the deep slump.

Several asked the Malaysian government to respond to Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung’s explanation in Parliament yesterday that the Republic could not accept Malaysia’s proposal to remove Assets Company (AssetsCo), the project’s systems supplier and network operator, as it constituted a “fundamental departure” from the original agreement.

In Melaka state, where an HSR station was to be built, Chief Minister Sulaiman Md Ali said the project’s cancellation has slightly affected a planned economic corridor to join the planned Ayer Keroh station to an economic zone by the Strait of Malacca.

“Before this we were confident that if the HSR has its station in Melaka, it will definitely be a hub that can provide abundant benefits to all,” Datuk Seri Sulaiman told reporters on Sunday.

The KL-Singapore HSR project was terminated after Malaysia allowed the bilateral agreement to lapse on the deadline of Dec 31, 2020.

Johor, which could have had three HSR stations under the plan, hopes that the government will continue with the HSR, with the line from Kuala Lumpur ending in Johor Baru, said Menteri Besar Hasni Mohammad.

“Among the things we in Johor hope for is that the HSR project would proceed even if it does not include Singapore,” he told reporters last Saturday.

There has been media speculation of a revised alignment of the HSR line, with the Johor Baru terminal ending near the JB-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) station. The 4km RTS Link is expected to be completed by 2026, linking Johor Baru’s Bukit Chagar station to Singapore’s Woodlands North MRT station.

Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, who was involved in the HSR discussions, said that among the changes Malaysia was seeking was a new structure that would allow the government to avoid giving a RM60 billion (S$19.7 billion) guarantee for the project, for a 30-year period.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is forced to find ways to reduce the cost of several mega projects while ensuring economic recovery, he wrote in a Facebook post yesterday. “These developments resulted in the original terms, which were signed under bilateral agreements in 2016, no longer being viable for Malaysia,” he said.

Several people left comments on the post asking Mr Mustapa to respond to Mr Ong’s explanation about AssetsCo.

Meanwhile, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak also took to Facebook yesterday to weigh in on the issue.

Responding to Mr Ong’s explanation, Najib said: “In the past when I worked on this project, I deliberately wanted both countries to be responsible for the success of the project so that irregularities could be reduced or avoided.

“But the PN (Perikatan Nasional) government’s approach is quite different. They want to select project contractors and vendors directly without the intervention of Singapore.”

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