Malaysia's decision to scrap the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project will come as a disappointment to those who saw it as emblematic of closer transport links between the two countries. The futuristic HSR deal, signed by the previous Malaysian government in December 2016, would have seen the 350km line reduce travelling time between the two cities to 90 minutes when completed in 2026. Most of the line - 335km of it - would have been in Malaysia, with 15km in Singapore. The HSR had been described by political leaders as a "game changer" in that it would have benefited both countries by enhancing the infrastructure for economic growth and job opportunities. Unfortunately, this forward-looking plan has now been derailed.
Links by road and air are strong, but faster rail travel would have helped to alleviate some of the inconvenience caused to travellers by jams at the Causeway and Second Link or the time spent on the ground to make a short flight by air. Indeed, the rail project could also have a been a cornerstone of Asean's efforts to improve connectivity, one of the key challenges which the region needs to meet to move to higher forms of economic cooperation. These fundamental reasons for the HSR have not changed. What has changed is the economic and political backdrop. The new Malaysian government decided to call off the HSR as part of a review of all mega projects in an effort to cut the debts chalked up by the previous administration. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has explained that the " most important thing for us now is to reduce the amount of borrowings by the government. If this country is to avoid bankruptcy, we must learn how to manage our big debts".