With the delayed Johor Bahru–Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS Link) encountering further delays and talk of privatization, the benefits of this project to Malaysia and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration are brought into question. Accomplishing the RTS Link’s construction can be aligned to three of PH’s promises from their manifesto. Firstly, promise 8.08; improve economically sustainable transportation so that owning private vehicles no longer becomes a burdening need of the people and Promise 31.3: where the government promised to encourage continued investment from China and other Asian countries that are high quality and will benefit Malaysians, especially Bumiputera and the SME sector. Lastly is Promise 39.3; to carry out a review of all approved projects. In all three areas, PH has accomplished moderate but uninspiring progress.
The Johor Bahru–Singapore Rapid Transit System is a joint project between the Malaysian and Singaporean governments, a concept that had been appraised by both governments since the 1990s. This was a rare instance of cooperation and unilateral agreement between Singapore and Malaysia when it comes to construction projects. The transit system’s construction was set to begin in 2019, but has been delayed due to a series of issues, including Malaysia missing key deadlines for a bilateral meeting and a 6-month suspension of the project to allow for the Malaysian government to review ‘key parameters’ of the project.
In improving economically sustainable transportation, it is fair to say that the project would mostly impact Johoreans but this should not discount its impact on the use of private vehicles along the Singaporean-Johor route. Whilst many Malaysians commute to and from Singapore from work, the state with the highest frequency of users of the causeway is Johor. One only needs to experience the disastrous congestion along the Singapore-Johor Causeway during peak hours to understand how dire the traffic situation is. A study by the formerly-named Land Public Transport Commission in 2016 found that an average of 4,000 buses, 52,000 cars and 72,000 motorcycles spend at least an hour to get across the Causeway. For the estimated 450,000 people who enter and exit Singapore from Johor via the Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints on a daily basis, reduced traffic congestion would be a definite improvement in quality of life. However, the realistic transport burden the RTS Link aimed to provide has recently been brought into doubt, as Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke predicted that it would cost “RM 15 for a one way-ticket”, which influenced their most recent decision to delay construction in order to find ways to reduce the RTS Link’s fare. Subsidies are not an option here because they would provide more strain on government finances without providing substantial benefit to the Malaysian populace.
While nowhere as extensive as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the RTS is still a sizeable investment into transport for Malaysians. Singapore is prepared to spend an estimated S$3 billion to develop their half of the link, as well as the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR). Admittedly, Promise 31.3 was meant to address the BRI, but the joint development does still fall under this promise. If progress on the RTS is carried out smoothly, this would be another of the few successes that the government has had in facilitating investment in the public sector, aside from the ECRL.
While the review of the RTS is prudent and in line with Promise 39.3, the execution of this review has been handed poorly and has resulted in costly mistakes. The costs of these delays have not only been the testing of Singapore’s patience with Malaysia, but RM 2 million as well for penalty fees. Firstly, the lack of transparency surrounding the project is problematic – we only have the word of the Ministers to go on. Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke said that “A working paper on the Rapid Transit System (RTS) project linking Johor Bahru to Woodlands, Singapore, will be presented to the Cabinet soon” on the 30th of July, 2018. This working paper aimed to provide detailed information to the Cabinet so that they could approve it. The question remains; where is this working paper, and what were its findings and parameters? The government should release this paper to the public to allow the people themselves to decide on the impact of the causeway. Whatever the findings of the paper, they were not decisive enough or impactful enough to prevent the government from having to suspend the project for 6 months. The vagueness of the ‘key parameters’ necessitates a fair explanation from the government. The sudden decision to consider privatizing the project suggests that the government is increasingly unwilling to bare the cost, which does not inspire confidence in its feasibility.
It is on the note of lack of poor execution that the Bukit Chagar gaffe must also be addressed. It is odd that the government only found out that the land did not belong to them after the project was in their hands for several months; even stranger is the possibility that the Sultan of Johor has the rights to the land without remembering so. As Mahathir himself stated “due process must be carried to investigated whether the land belongs to the government, or to the Sultan”. This process could take months, which means that there could be less time to review whichever key parameters the committee felt necessary to call a suspension for. If a decision cannot be made on the direction of the project whilst the land grab problem is unresolved by the time the 6-month grace period expires, Singapore’s patience will be tested. This could prove to be problematic for the development of the project in the future, and for the potential having any other joint initiatives with Singapore.
The RTS link will serve to help PH take a step further to achieve its goals; however it must be transparent about its rationale behind the delays and the project’s value if it wishes to maintain the public’s belief in the project.