Where Pakatan Harapan went right and wrong with the RTS Link

Accomplishing the RTS Link construction is among the 3 promises from Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto

by IDRIS AZIM/ BERNAMA PIC

The delayed Johor Baru (JB)-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS Link) which encountered further delays and the talk of privatisation have brought the benefits of this project to Malaysia and the Pakatan Harapan administration into question.

Accomplishing the RTS Link construction is among three of Pakatan Harapan’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 small and medium enterprise sector.

Lastly is promise 39.3: To carry out a review of all approved projects. In all the three areas, Pakatan Harapan has accomplished moderate, but uninspiring progress.

The JB-Singapore RTS Link is a joint project between the Malaysian and Singaporean governments, a concept that has 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 six- 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 dis- count its impact on the use of private vehicles along the Singapore-Johor route. While many Malaysians commute to and from Singapore for 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 trans- port burden the RTS Link aims to provide has recently been brought into doubt, as Transport Minister Anthony Loke predicted that it would cost “RM15 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 (BRI), the RTS Link is still a sizeable investment into transport for Malaysians. Singapore is prepared to spend an estimated S$3 billion (RM9.2 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 Link 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 East Coast Rail Link.

While the review of the RTS Link 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 RM2 million for penalty fees as well.

Firstly, the lack of transparency surrounding the project is problematic — we only have the word of the ministers to go on. On July 30, 2018 Loke said, “a working paper on the RTS Link project linking JB to Woodlands, will be presented to the cabinet soon.”

This working paper aimed to provide detailed information to the Cabinet so 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 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 six months.

The vagueness of the “key parameters”: necessitates a fair explanation from the government. The sudden decision to consider privatising the project suggests that the government is increasingly unwilling to bear 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 Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself stated, “due process must be carried to investigate 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 while the land grab problem is unresolved by the time the six- 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 Pakatan Harapan 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 pub- lic’s belief in the project.

Idris Azim is a research assistant at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. The ideas expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the newspaper owners and editorial board.