Building and breaking bridges in Malaysia-Singapore ties

Photo: Nicolas Lannuzel/CC BY-SA 2.0

Slow progress in the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) link project further strains Malaysia-Singapore ties.

By Maegan Liew

The RTS Link was set to bring Singapore and Malaysia closer together. Passengers travelling between the two neighbours on the RTS Link would only have to go through immigration clearance once. Tavel time between Johor Bahru and Singapore would also be reduced to just 30 minutes.

Some 400 000 people travel between Singapore and Malaysia each day, making the land border crossing between the two neighbours the busiest in the world.

With a maximum capacity of 10,000 passengers travelling in each direction every hour, the RTS Link will ease congestion and alleviate the notorious Causeway jam. For Singaporeans, it is essentially a cross-border Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line linked to their national public transport system that will allow a seamless commute to Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

Will the Malaysia-Singapore line get one of these? Suzuki/Wikimedia Commons

A legally-binding bilateral agreement was signed last year to formalise commitment to the RTS Link project

First announced in 2010, the January 2018 bilateral agreement represented a significant step towards the realisation of the RTS Link. But according to Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, the Johor Bahru-Singapore RTS link project is “not progressing well”. The RTS Link project is now likely to be delayed beyond its expected completion date of December 31, 2024.

The project is behind schedule. Sluggish progress from the Malaysian government has led to missed milestones. Kuala Lumpur’s repeated delays in nominating its joint venture partner resulted in a setback of more than six months. Without a joint venture company, the Concession Agreement to appoint the RTS Link operator could not be signed by the target date of September 30, 2018.

Malaysia’s change in government is shaking up bilateral agreements inked with Singapore

At the signing of the bilateral agreement in January 2018, then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong celebrated the ‘excellent’ state of relations which enabled the two countries to cooperate on various projects.

Following Tun Mahathir’s historic electoral victory in May last year, Malaysia-Singapore relations have become frayed. The recent ongoing maritime and airspace disputes have ushered in a thorny state of bilateral relations.

Although the incoming Pakatan Harapan (PH) government deferred the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project, it expressed its continued commitment to the RTS Link. However, Mahathir’s recent delays indicate waning enthusiasm for the project.

One reason for this waning enthusiasm is likely the project’s price tag. Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke had expressed concerns over the cost, which is estimated at RM4 billion (US$970 million).

While the RTS Link project had survived the PH government’s initial review of agreements signed by the previous administrations, Mahathir’s commitment to slashing government expenditures is likely contributing to the project’s delays.

Singapore remains committed to delivering the RTS Link

In preparation for the project, the Republic’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) has already assembled 70 members of staff, and put infrastructure construction deals out to civil tender. Singapore’s Transport Minister promised “a constructive approach” as the city-state remains fully committed towards implementing the RTS Link project.

A bilateral meeting between Malaysia and Singapore for discussions on the project is essential for the drafting of revised project timelines needed to move the project forward.

It was the 8th Singapore-Malaysia Leader’s Retreat that produced the January 2018 bilateral agreement on the RTS Link. The remedy for today’s impasse may come in the form of the 9th Leaders’ Retreat. However, the retreat, initially scheduled for November 2018, was postponed without a fixed date.

The realisation of the RTS Link rests on the priorities of the new Malaysian government

The RM1 trillion (US$240 billion) national debt Mahathir inherited from the previous government’s administration is a pressing issue. But how the PH government work towards reducing Malaysia’s national debt will depend on its political direction and priorities.

Although the implementation off the RTS Link project has its costs, it is also expected to boost the cross-border economy, benefiting Malaysians both in and outside of the state of Johor.

In particular, Iskandar Malaysia is set to benefit immensely from the RTS Link by resolving the present inefficient road connectivity which has deterred investors. The economic segments projected to benefit significantly from the RTS Link include the property, manufacturing, hospitality, medical and retail sectors.

The success of the RTS Link project thus depends on how the PH government values its worth – both in terms of tangible economic benefits and the intangible benefits of closer Malaysia-Singapore ties. More than the question of affordability, the project’s progress hinges on the new government’s priorities. And that may boil down to the man at the helm who is setting the tone.

Improved Malaysia-Singapore relations require a shift in mindset

Personalities can play a substantial role in politics, especially when it comes to the head of government. Bilateral ties were relatively strong under the watch of Najib Razak and Lee Hsien Loong. With Mahathir guiding the ship, the Straits of Johor has become choppy.

The resurgence of bilateral spats is reminiscent of the ‘confrontational diplomacy and barbed  rhetoric’ between Malaysia and Singapore which characterised Mahathir’s time as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. Mahathir’s past foreign policy practices have earned him a reputation of taking an obstinate “my way or the highway” approach, when dealing with his Singaporean counterparts.

If the two neighbours desire stable and conducive ties, a mindset shift is required. Their leaders need to put down their historical baggage. They must reject nationalism fuelled by bilateral rivalry. The RTS Link is a step in the right direction and an opportunity to restore calm across the Straits of Johor. Malaysia and Singapore need to build, not break, bridges.