The signing of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail Bilateral Agreement in Putrajaya yesterday is a milestone in the quest for better connectivity between two close neighbours. The agreement builds on the Memorandum of Understanding on the high-speed rail that the two countries signed in July. It marks the formal commencement of the implementation stage for a project which was mooted many years earlier and to which leaders of both countries agreed three years ago. It sets out a sound basis on which the high-speed rail system can be built and operated, including key details such as how it will be funded and how joint tenders will be decided, as well as security and immigration. Significantly, it spells out a target date for trains to start running from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in 90 minutes: Dec 31, 2026.
As both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak noted, the high-speed rail will transform the way people on both sides of the Strait of Johor interact, socialise and do business, for the better. It will also give leaders a greater stake in keeping already-close bilateral relations strong and positive. However, yesterday's signing is just the first step in a long journey that will involve much deliberation, negotiation and some tough decisions, which a bilateral committee led by senior public servants of the two countries will have to work out jointly.
The decisions include awarding the tender for a joint development partner early next year to provide advice on operational, technical and procurement matters; calling a joint tender for a privately financed assets company to design, build, finance and maintain rolling stock and rail assets; and, at a later date, calling a joint tender for an operator for cross-border train services. Several countries with high-speed rail systems have been lobbying hard to get the contract. The committee will have some tough calls to make in evaluating the bidders. It is therefore reassuring that both sides are aware of the scale and complexity of the undertaking, and there is strong political will all round to ensure that the billion-dollar project is carried out well.
The 350km railway line, which will cross the border by a bridge over the Strait of Johor, near the Second Link, is the most ambitious connectivity project between the two territories since the Causeway was completed in 1923 and the Second Link opened in 1998. Border crossing will be seamless, with co-located Customs and immigration facilities so that travellers just have to undergo clearance in the country which they are leaving. Planning work on a Rapid Transit System between Singapore and Johor Baru, nearer the Causeway, is also under way and will benefit regular commuters. When completed, the projects will be an example of efficient cross-border links within Asean as it moves towards greater integration.