The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the high-speed rail to connect Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is a concrete step forward in a journey that began three years ago. That was when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak agreed on the project,which had been mooted many years earlier. Although not legally binding, the MOU does represent a template of measured and reciprocal expectations. It attests to the mutual interest that the two countries have in what could prove to be a game changer in their bilateral relations. High-speed trains possibly running within a decade will encourage more interaction between the two countries - a positive development from many angles.
Whether or not this timetable is kept, there is little to detract from the transformative vision embodied in the introduction of a rail service that will connect the two cities in 90 minutes, compared with four hours by road. Given that road travel can take much longer when traffic jams are factored in, a fast train service would incentivise commuters with the time savings while remaining competitive with budget air fares. Pricing will be a key issue. It cannot be so high as to turn off all but business travellers, but it cannot fall so low as to affect the profitability of the train operators, whose financial bottom lines will decide the viability of the project.
Firm commitment on both sides will be needed to see the project through. Expected to cost more than $17 billion, it would represent a substantial investment at a time when global economic trends are not propitious. With only 15km of the nearly 400km line running through Singapore, most of the track will lie in Malaysia. However, in terms of cost, Singapore might have to spend as much on its stretch of the railway as Malaysia does on its side because of the cost of building underground in this country. Malaysian officials recognise these realities. It is to be hoped that disruptive political voices do not intrude into calm and rational bilateral negotiations on how to split costs and ensure an equitable and effective way of running operations.
Given the unprecedented nature of the rail link, problems are bound to surface, but the initiative should not be held hostage by politics. If pressures that arise later lead to demands for more intervening stops or other encumbrances, commuters might choose alternative travel modes that are less cumbersome and more affordable.
Instead, citizens on both sides of the Causeway should look upon the project as an iconic possibility. Connectivity is a buzzword, not least in the lexicon of Asean integration. Singapore and Malaysia could prove that faster and better transport links would transform South-east Asia into a regional community that is minded to work well together.