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Faster track to bilateral cooperation
Publication Date : 22-02-2013
The proposed high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur represents a bold step towards even closer economic links between the Republic and Malaysia. It is in its infancy, so many crucial details are not forthcoming yet, like the stops in Malaysia or the cost of travel. If it sees mass usage, it could well be a game-changer with clear benefits for both countries. Enhanced connectivity could boost cooperation in diverse fields and take the bilateral relationship to an unprecedented level.
Old disputes over issues such as Malaysia's supply of water to Singapore and Malayan Railway land here had dragged on for too long. But the painstaking and eventually successful resolution of those problems has provided a new basis for win-win cooperation. An example is Johor's Iskandar development region, which has seen major investments by Singapore companies.
A fast rail link will extend easy reach to KL and perhaps Seremban and Malacca as well. It will cut travel time to KL by land to a mere 90 minutes, from the current average of eight hours by train and about five hours by bus. This holds the potential for Singapore and KL to become a single urban eco-system within which people can commute effortlessly for work, business or leisure.
In announcing the new rail link, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak have put bilateral relations on literally a fast track. This momentum will need to be nurtured and sustained as the journey towards full realisation of the project might be tested by differences and obstacles. There is already some concern that nativist political voices in Malaysia could try to hold the project hostage to their political agenda. More are likely to support this iconic endeavour as the immense potential of economic cooperation becomes more apparent in different quarters.
Sticking to the timetable, a reasonable budget for building the new rail link and a sound model of sustainability are essential priorities. The service needs to compete with flights between the two cities that take 40 minutes. The business model must describe carefully the nature of the private-public partnership envisaged for this mega-project, and detail how investments will be attracted. Issues of safety, reliability and ecological soundness are important as well.
If the project is managed well, the spin-off benefits of a completed rail link would be felt in many areas besides trade, investment, services, tourism and leisure. Indeed, a smooth journey in meeting the completion deadline of 2020 might help establish this project as a prototype for greater connectivity in Asean as a whole.