Scrapping of 4 highway tolls in Malaysia raises talk of govt bailout

The Eastern Dispersal Link is one of four highway tolls that will be scrapped from Jan 1.
The Eastern Dispersal Link is one of four highway tolls that will be scrapped from Jan 1.ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

The scrapping of tolls at four highway plazas in Malaysia announced in the Budget 2018 last week may boost Prime Minister Najib Razak's chances at the coming elections, but the move has raised murmurs of a bailout of state enterprises.

Others claim that public funds are being used to boost the balance sheet of the companies that own these highway concessions.

The toll in Kedah state and two in Selangor are collected by Plus Malaysia, which is jointly controlled by the government's wholly owned UEM Group and the Employees Provident Fund (EPF).

Plus, Malaysia's biggest highway operator, manages five highways, including the North-South Expressway (NSE) that runs the length of Peninsular Malaysia.

The fourth highway toll that will be scrapped from Jan 1 is located just after the Causeway in Johor Baru and is called the Eastern Dispersal Link (EDL).

The EDL fees are collected by the highway's builder, Malaysian Resources Corporation, or MRCB, whose largest shareholder is the EPF.

"We believe highway concessionaires Plus and MRCB will be fairly compensated following the abolishment of toll collections," said AmInvestment Bank.

This would greatly benefit MRCB, which is struggling to keep its 8km EDL operations afloat.

"An abolishment of tolls could benefit MRCB. Two scenarios are possible: MRCB being compensated for toll revenues lost or the government buying the EDL outright. EDL currently bleeds about RM90 million (S$29 million) a year (mostly finance cost) and makes up RM1 billion of MRCB's total debt," said UOB Kay Hian's research head for Malaysia, Mr Vincent Khoo.

MRCB's share price last Friday surged during PM Najib's afternoon Budget speech, and rose further on Monday.

Plus is already receiving about RM350 million in annual compensation from the government for not hiking tolls from last year on the NSE.

Second Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani said this week that the scrapping of the three Plus toll charges would likely result in extending its existing concessions. The NSE concession ends in 2038.

"The people's biggest fear is the Najib administration bailing out highway concessionaires, further proving that (the ruling) Barisan Nasional's intrinsic economic policy is to 'privatise profits and socialise losses'," said opposition MP Tony Pua.

Shannon Teoh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2017, with the headline 'Scrapping of 4 highway tolls raises talk of govt bailout'. Print Edition | Subscribe