HSR not a done deal if opposition wins power

Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on the HSR.

The High-Speed Rail (HSR) project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore might not be a done deal if Malaysia's opposition comes to power, said former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, a key figure in the opposition.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times, Malaysia's longest-serving premier said: "We need to do a study whether it is feasible or not because we don't have the money and we have to borrow money and that is not something the Malaysian government can bear at this moment. We have to know whether we really need this HSR or not," said Tun Dr Mahathir.

Last month, Malaysia and Singapore signed a legally binding agreement to build a 350km high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Some opposition figures in Malaysia have queried the wisdom of the project, said to cost up to RM50 billion (S$16 billion).

Still, Dr Mahathir appeared cautiously optimistic about the HSR's potential benefits. The chairman of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia - made up of Umno rebels opposed to Prime Minister Najib Razak's leadership - also opened the door to expanding the HSR project to "go to Penang or even the Thai border".

"All these things need to be studied carefully and to know what would be the returns on the investment. We accept that we will lose money at first but how much over how long a period. We built the Light Rail Transit and lost a lot of money in the beginning but now it is so crowded that we have to add more trains," he said, referring to Kuala Lumpur's main urban rail system.

 
 

Despite his doubts over the HSR, Dr Mahathir insisted that Singapore should not worry about relations with Malaysia even if Datuk Seri Najib - widely credited as the Malaysian leader who has built the warmest ties with Singapore - is ousted.

Dr Mahathir said despite perception that he and Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew had a spiky relationship, the two countries did move forward together on certain issues, such as aligning time zones with East Malaysia.

"There were differences between Malaysia and Singapore during my time but we didn't go to war. We were trying to find ways of solving those things in peaceful manner."

Instead, he warned that recent tensions between China and Singapore (largely over the latter's ties to Taiwan) could force Mr Najib, who has solicited hundreds of billions in investments from China, to distance himself from his southern neighbour.

"If we have a lot of Chinese investment in Malaysia, they will want to secure their investment and influence the Malaysian government to help them whatever way we can. They will want to make sure that we do not side with Singapore in any dispute with China," he said.

The former premier added that while Mr Najib has been "friendly" towards Singapore, this is only because he is in a weak position politically and needs Singapore's help, through projects such as the HSR, to boost his standing in Malaysia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'HSR not a done deal if opposition wins power'. Print Edition | Subscribe