Rail deal a step closer to reality: The Star columnist

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak observe Singaporean Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan and Malaysian Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan as they sign the High Speed Rail MOU on Jul
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak observe Singaporean Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan and Malaysian Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan as they sign the High Speed Rail MOU on July 19, 2016.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The 350-km track project is generating ripples internationally and government officials should refrain from giving differnt estimates about the cost of the project.


The Star / Asia News Network

After witnessing the signing of the MoU on the High-Speed Rail linking Malaysia and Singapore, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, in his remarks, singled out Tan Sri Wahid Omar for making the MoU signing a reality.

With his counterpart Lee Hsien Loong standing two metres away, the Prime Minister praised officials who have been working hard since the HSR project was announced at the leaders' retreat in February 2013.

"They should be commended for their hard work and I wish to thank Wahid Omar who was then EPU (Economic Planning Unit) minister for his dedication in delivering this MoU.

"By the way, we have a new job for him but not as a Uber driver," Najib said tongue-in-cheek, referring to Wahid's short stint as an Uber driver after he ended his term in the Government last month.

Wahid, who was seated among the VIPs in the front row at the Seri Perdana hall in Putrajaya, smiled.

He was specially invited by the Prime Minister to witness the event on Tuesday.

The MoU was signed by his successor Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan and Singapore Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan.

No doubt, a lot of work has been put in during the negotiations as the project is massive, crossing the borders of two neighbours, whose relations have moved on from being prickly to being friendly only in the last few years.

"Yes, negotiations were tough but it is no more blood, sweat and tears. It is now love and embracement," said an official familiar with the negotiations.

To many, Wahid in the public eye is humble and respectful but behind closed doors, he is meticulous, sharp, financially savvy and willing to listen and learn.

To the media he is always accessible and that is why the media loves to doorstop him.

"The signing of the MoU sets out the major terms and features of the HSR project.

"This is a major milestone in the project implementation and is a prelude to the bilateral agreement. This HSR is truly a game changer that will bring immense economic benefits to both countries.

"I'm honoured and privileged to have been involved in such a significant project alongside the Johor Menteri Besar and the dedicated Malaysian team together with my counterpart Khaw and his team," Wahid said.

For those who worked closely with him during the negotiations, Wahid proved his mettle as a seasoned negotiator.

"He is a valuable asset. He sets the tone for the negotiation.

"Wahid is a straight kind of guy. Singapore saw that they were dealing with an honest party," said one official.

More pressure awaits officials as the two leaders now want the bilateral agreement to be signed when they hold their annual consultation at end of the year.

Once signed, the agreement will be legally binding.

The 350-km track project is generating ripples internationally and several companies from different countries have shown interest in taking part in the project.

Over the last three years, one question that is frequently posed to the leaders and officials is the cost of the project.

When the project was first announced, media reports, without naming anyone, gave the cost estimates at RM 40 billion and this figure changed several times with the highest quote now being RM70 billion.

But none of the officials involved in the negotiations have openly revealed what the estimated cost would be.

The day the MoU was signed, Second Finance Minister Datuk Johari Ghani told the media it would be between RM50 billion and RM60 billion.

His announcement came as a surprise because when Najib was asked about the cost of the joint press conference with Lee a few hours later, he was non-committal.

"Various figures have been bandied about by the press. I don't think it's right for us to mention any figure at this stage because the bids have yet to be open.

"Only when we know the final outcome can we be specific about the cost. Not only must the process be competitive but technology will change a lot in 10 years," Najib added.

Johari who was present at the event should take the cue from his boss' reply.

His announcement can only cause confusion to the public as the project is generating huge interest among potential foreign bidders.

"We don't want to influence the tender process. A party may send in a cheaper bid and doesn't see the need to bump it up when the cost figure has been announced. The project consists of different packages anyway," said an official.

Another official felt that as joint project owner, the Malaysian Government should not be seen as sending mixed signals on the cost.

"That has been our problem. Everybody wants to talk. The Singapore side always speaks in one voice when they want to tell a "story" to the public.

"Anyway, it is too early to give the numbers. Let's just say it is not a cheap project, the cost may be higher," added the official.

Both leaders admitted that the project would cost a lot and stressed the need to do it right for a lasting and strategic contribution.

While evaluating and awarding of tender would be fair and transparent, both governments are keen for best value and choice.

Najib said both governments are committed to making the project happen as their image and integrity will be at stake.

The target deadline for the HSR to be up and running is 10 years from now - which is a very tight schedule given the scale and complexity of the project.

Wahid for one is optimistic with the deadline.

"I look forward to being one of the first few passengers to ride on both the express and the domestic service come 2026," he said.