Parliament: Malaysia has asked to further extend deadline to appoint partner for JB-Woodlands RTS Link

An artist's impression of Woodlands North station, which would be connected to Johor Baru by the Rapid Transit System Link. PHOTO: LTA

SINGAPORE - Both cross-border rail projects with Malaysia remain in limbo, according to updates by Acting Transport Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Dr Balakrishnan told Parliament on Thursday (March 7) that "further delays" are likely for the Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link - which will connect Woodlands North station on Singapore's Thomson-East Coast MRT line (TEL) to Johor Baru.

He updated MPs that on Feb 28, Malaysia asked for another extension of the deadline to confirm its partner for the RTS Link, to March 31.

"We hope they will reach a decision soon," Dr Balakrishnan added.

Given these delays, the RTS Link service is no longer on track to commence by Dec 31, 2024, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is Foreign Minister, is standing in for Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan who is on medical leave after undergoing surgery following a fall.

"Our approach to engaging Malaysia remains unchanged. We have upheld international law and respected the sanctity of international agreements," he said.

"At the same time, we have been reasonable and constructive in trying to resolve issues in a win-win manner."

On the RTS, Dr Balakrishnan said both sides are at the stage where their governments are obliged to jointly call an open tender to appoint the RTS Link Operating Company, or OpCo.

"In the spirit of bilateral cooperation, Singapore has been willing to engage Malaysia on its proposals for Malaysia's joint venture (JV) partner for the RTS Link OpCo", he said.

"Unfortunately, Malaysia has repeatedly delayed confirming its JV partner."

The link was originally supposed to have been built by 2018. This was soon revised to 2019 to be in line with the new deadline for the TEL, and eventually to end-2024.

Under an agreement both countries inked in January 2018, a JV company comprising Singapore's SMRT and Malaysia's Prasarana should have been formed by June 30, 2018. It should then have been appointed the RTS Link operator through a concession agreement with Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Malaysian government by September 2018.

However, Malaysia had indicated it was considering replacing its JV partner, and has delayed confirming this partner thrice before - first until September 2018, then December. On Dec 28, it asked to be given until Feb 28 this year to do so.

Observers said uncertainty over the RTS Link will have cost implications for Singapore. In 2013, the LTA awarded a $34.2 million contract to infrastructural specialist Aecom to conduct an architectural and engineering study for the link. A sizeable plot of land has also been set aside at the TEL Woodlands North station for a terminus.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore continues to believe the RTS Link is "mutually beneficial", and remains fully committed to implementing it.

Separately, the stalled Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project remains on hold.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore has "yet to receive any proposals from Malaysia" on how to proceed with the HSR project since its suspension last year.

At the request of Malaysia, both sides agreed to a two-year suspension up to May 31, 2020. With the delay, trains will start running only on Jan 1, 2031, instead of Dec 31, 2026, as planned originally.

As part of the deferment agreement, Malaysia remitted $15 million to Singapore on Jan 31 for "abortive costs incurred by Singapore due to the suspension". The sum is a fraction of the $250 million Singapore had already spent to get the project underway up to May 2018.

"Malaysia has requested that during the suspension period, both sides discuss the way forward for the HSR project, with the aim of reducing costs," Dr Balakrishnan noted. "We have yet to receive any proposals from Malaysia on this."

"We will study any such proposals carefully when we receive them," he added. "We look forward to working with Malaysia when the project resumes."

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