Politics sinks Malaysia's bullet train to Singapore

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2008, 12:00am

It was probably politics that killed the proposed bullet train linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, analysts said, and not cost considerations as claimed by Malaysia.

'The project if carried out would suddenly bring Singapore to our doorstep,' said Murugesu Pathmanaban, political scientist and former academic. 'Probably the discomfort of having Singapore at our doorstep is a key reason against the rail link.'

The M$8 billion (HK$19.86 billion) proposal by Yeoh Tiong Lay Corp (YTL), a largely family-owned local conglomerate, was under consideration for five years but officially shelved on Tuesday - with officials blaming high costs as the main factor.

Francis Yeoh, YTL's managing director, first tried to convince former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad but was not successful and turned to his successor, Abdullah Badawi, who was initially keen but failed to make a firm decision.

Analysts say the political cost was a key factor. YTL was going to source the project's financing, while the government would help only with the acquisition of land.

'A key reason always has been the political implication of having Singapore so close to Malaysia,' said political analyst James Wong. 'It is a case of too close for comfort.'

YTL had always been aware of the political factor but had convincingly argued that both economies would benefit from the high-speed rail link.

Singapore was part of Malaysia but was expelled in August 1965.

In 2003 Dr Mahathir proposed a suspension bridge to replace the present 3km causeway linking the two territories, but the project was shelved by Mr Abdullah after acrimonious debate between the two sides.

Dr Mahathir never agreed with that decision.

'The decision [to shelve] the rail link was made in early April and the parties were duly informed recently,' Sulaiman Mahbob, chief of the Economic Planning Unit, told Bernama news agency on Tuesday.

'Based on the financial model submitted by YTL, the government has decided not to go ahead with the bullet train,' he said.

YTL, which operates the high-speed rail linking the city with KLIA airport, did not want to comment on the decision 'just yet'.

'We can appeal with a different financial model,' a YTL official said.

Supporters of the rail link say the service would boost property prices in the capital and other urban centres along the route by as much as 300 per cent.

However, critics say the boom would benefit mainly Malaysia's ethnic Chinese who mostly own urban properties whereas ethnic Malays who predominate in the rural heartland would be left out.

There were also fears that Kuala Lumpur itself would see a downturn as Malaysians used the rail link for easier access to Singapore's superior infrastructure as a hub for travelling, education and entertainment.