Singapore, Malaysia in talks over High-Speed Rail project as deadline approaches

The project was first suspended after a change of the Malaysian government following a general election in May 2018.
The project was first suspended after a change of the Malaysian government following a general election in May 2018.PHOTO: EDELMAN

KUALA LUMPUR - Singapore and Malaysia are still in discussions over the twice-delayed high-speed rail (HSR) project, which has until Dec 31 before officials have to make a final decision on its status, a Singapore Ministry of Transport spokesman has said.

The ministry was responding to a Malaysian news report on Sunday, quoting an unnamed source, that said Malaysia is planning to continue the project without Singapore’s involvement and end the line – which starts in Kuala Lumpur – in Johor, not Jurong East.

Asked for its comment, a Singapore Ministry of Transport spokesman on Sunday said  both countries are still in talks.

“Singapore and Malaysia are in discussions on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project.

“As communicated in the Dec 2 joint statement by both prime ministers, we will announce further details on the HSR project in due course,” the spokesman said.

The report in The Malaysian Insight (TMI) news site quoted the source as saying the Malaysian government will pay Singapore just under $105 million as compensation if it opts to proceed with the project on its own.

“Malaysia will need to compensate Singapore with a payment of $104.67 million. It must be paid by Dec 31,” the source said.

The sum is less than half of the $250 million cited last month by the Free Malaysia Today news site that Singapore would seek as the price to drop the deal.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport declined comment when contacted.

The TMI report said the Malaysian Cabinet decided last Friday that Malaysia will not continue working with Singapore on the project.

If Malaysia were to complete the HSR on its own, the project would cost around RM65 billion (S$21.4 billion), excluding the trains, the source told TMI.

The original 350km rail project was to run from a terminal station in Bandar Malaysia in downtown Kuala Lumpur, cross the Strait of Johor near the Second Link, and stop at a terminal in Jurong East.

The HSR was slated to have several other stations in between - in Seremban (Negri Sembilan), Ayer Keroh (Melaka), and three Johor stops in Pagoh, Ayer Itam and Iskandar Puteri.

TMI reported that Malaysia had asked to build a HSR station at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which Singapore had rejected, with the source claiming that the Republic perceived this as a threat to its aviation industry.

The HSR project was first announced in 2010, and was touted as being able to cut the travel time between KL and Singapore to 90 minutes, compared with more than four hours by car.

Both countries signed the bilateral agreement, a legally binding international pact, in Putrajaya in December 2016, witnessed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The original target was to have the trains running by Dec 31, 2026.

The new targeted completion date for the HSR was in 2029.

On Dec 2, PM Lee and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin held talks on the project via video conference, but no further information was given.

The project was first suspended after a change of the Malaysian government following the May 2018 General Election, with then Premier Mahathir Mohamad initially wanting to scrap the HSR as part of a review of mega projects.

The Pakatan Harapan administration led by Tun Dr Mahathir later clarified that it wanted to delay the start of construction, as a cancellation would have entailed a high amount of compensation under the HSR agreement.

Both countries then agreed to suspend the project, at Malaysia's request.

The first extension in September 2018 ended in May this year, but the suspension was extended for a second and final time, till Dec 31.