Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the right business model would ensure that an ambitious 10-year timeline to implement the high-speed rail (HSR) link with Singapore is met despite volatility in the global economy.
Datuk Seri Najib stressed that the tender process for the project, expected to cost more than $17 billion, will be fair, transparent and objective as "the image and integrity of both countries will be at stake".
Speculation has been rife that the tens of billions that Chinese state enterprises have invested in Malaysia in recent months would sway the tender process.
"Get the business model right and we should be able to implement the project in time. Rest assured, the process will be carried out in the fairest possible way," Mr Najib said at a joint press conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the HSR was inked at his residence yesterday.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan, who is in charge of the Economic Planning Unit that is Malaysia's lead department for the HSR, told reporters that fares would be "benchmarked against" airfares and driven by market forces.
"We are more inclined towards (a) private sector and market-driven business model," he said, when asked about who would run operations once the rail was ready.
Datuk Abdul Rahman, who signed the MOU with Singapore's Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, did not reveal how the cost of the project would be split between the two sides. But he said "we have hammered out quite a bit of differences there".
With only 15km of the nearly 400km line running through Singapore, Malaysia will host six stops along its west coast before the HSR terminates in Bandar Malaysia, a new township being developed just south of Kuala Lumpur.
"You must remember the length of the track, much of it will be in Malaysia. But we are not looking at the length, we look at the cost because building 15km underground in Singapore will probably cost as much. It will be an equitable, fair percentage for both countries," Mr Abdul Rahman said of the financing responsibility for the project.
Although he and Mr Najib were coy on the cost, Second Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani had earlier told reporters that the estimated figure would be upwards of RM50 billion (S$16.9 billion). He talked up the domestic service running from Kuala Lumpur, via Seremban, Malacca and across the Johor coast, as an "economic spine".
"We may not feel the real value but our future generations, imagine, even if you work in Singapore, you can travel from KL in 1.5 hours," he said.
Mr Najib also said the domestic service running from Johor to Kuala Lumpur would provide the stops with "new impetus in terms of its economic development".
"The short answer is that it will be a game-changer," he said.