KL-Singapore High Speed Rail: When will it ever be ready?

Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: spoke about the High Speed Railway during parliamentary debates on the 2016 budget. Hong Phuc FOSSASIA /Wikimedia Commons

By Jolene Yeo

The Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project seeks to improve the connectivity between Singapore and its closest neighbour, with long-term socio-economic benefits in mind. The agglomeration of the two cities would allow greater efficiency and connectivity, resulting in an enlarged pool of labour and talent for both cities.

Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan spoke about the High Speed Railway during the Committee of Supply debates, when parliament was debating the 2016 Budget. It is expected that the High Speed Rail will help to reduce congestion on the Causeway by providing an alternative travel method between Singapore and Malaysia.

The hurdle at the crossroads

However, plans for the HSR have not been smooth sailing. Apart from having to shelve the plan for the HSR to be completed by 2020—due to budgetary concerns from Malaysia—the journey towards realising this bilateral vision has been riddled with obstacles.

Expected to cost between US$10billion to US$15billion, a growing number of competitors have jumped on the bandwagon to vie for a lead role in the project. The governments of China and Japan have begun efforts to lobby support long before the international tender for the HSR project opens in 2017.

While executives from JR East and officials from the Japanese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur have met with Malaysian Transport Ministry officials in the hope of positioning themselves advantageously, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has sought to stand China in good stead via the Chinese way—guanxi. The Straits Times reports that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang wrote a personal letter to Prime Minister Najib Razak in March 2016, reiterating Beijing’s commitment to their investments in Malaysia and deep interest in securing the HSR project.

It appears that Singapore and Malaysia are divided in their preferences as to which country should be awarded the HSR project. China is generally seen by the industry as a forerunner in the race— especially since its announcement to open a US$2 billion regional centre in Kuala Lumpur that would give it an edge over rivals in vying for the coveted project.

Malaysia has also expressed its preference towards awarding the project to China, given its low cost production, whereas Singapore is said to be partial towards Japanese and European technology, given their tried-and-tested reliability. Aficionados of Malaysia’s bilateral relations with China would go as far as to speculate the politics behind Malaysia’s partiality towards the Chinese.

China’s train diplomacy

Years of rapid technological advancement and growing economic might has given China the capacity to pursue its railroad diplomacy at high speed ahead. The Chinese-Japanese competition for HSR projects around the world is no longer a novel occurrence. In 2015, The Diplomat reported that as with “most infrastructure projects, high-speed rail is unlikely to be a purely commercial competition—political involvement is unavoidable.”

The Diplomat also posited that countries looking for HSR are often short of capital—and this coincides with Kuala Lumpur’s current financial predicament. This thus places China in an advantageous position to provide loans and financial lifts to Malaysia, who will be bearing the bulk of the cost for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR.

While the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore railway has long been presented as a means to benefit bilateral socio-economic relations, it may have found itself in a larger quandary—as key building blocks in the Chinese trajectory to promote its technology expertise and economic might to the rest of the world, particularly towards developing Chinese presence in South-East Asia.

Given China’s growing stake in ASEAN, and long standing ASEAN-China economic relationship, it remains to seen how Singapore and Malaysia can sort out their differences to welcome Chinese investment or risk being seen as distancing themselves from China’s geopolitical influence.

Memorandum of understanding to be signed mid- 2016

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has announced that a memorandum of understanding (MoU)—a non-legally binding agreement stronger than a gentleman’s agreement—is expected to be signed between Singapore and Malaysia in mid-2016. During his speech at the 12th Invest Malaysia KL 2016 on 12 April 2016, Mr Najib announced that massive rail developments—including the HSR link to Singapore, the MRT and LRT as well as the Pengerang in Johor—are “all still going ahead”.

Mr Najib appears to have unwavering faith in his economic plan—as a “long-term plan that works for the benefit of Malaysians not just today, but tomorrow, and in the years and decades to come” and said that development projects under the 11th Malaysian Plan would remain unaffected despite the Government’s revising of its Budget and spending in response to falling crude oil price.

Plans for intermediate stops still in the pipeline

Meanwhile, talks to resolve the number of intermediate stops for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR are still in the tracks. MyHSR Corporation Sdn Bhd Chariman Dr Ali Hamsa told reporters after the prize-giving ceremony of the MyHSR Company Logo Design Competition that considerations for the intermediate stops are still in the final stages of discussion.

A Singapore Ministry of Transport spokesman has expressed in January that “Singapore has proposed that the transit service, which will stop at several stations in Malaysia and hence primarily serve commuters travelling within Malaysia, be operated separately from the express non-stop HSR service”. Latest updates by Dr Ali said that conclusions on the alignment of the project will be made known in July.