Barely three days after the Malaysian opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan wrested control of the government, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has declared in a press conference on Saturday (May 12) that all foreign contracts and projects, including the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail project and those under China’s Belt and Road initiative, will be reviewed.
"We don't have the money"
With the HSR in particular, Mahathir had previously made known his stand about the money-draining transboundary mega project.
In a 2017 interview with The Sunday Times, he said:
"We need to do a study whether it is feasible or not because we don't have the money and we have to borrow money and that is not something the Malaysian government can bear at this moment. We have to know whether we really need this HSR or not"
Despite acknowledging the benefits of the HSR, Mahathir insisted that the project's financial considerations, and route design needs to be "studied carefully".
In order to fund the HSR, Malaysia has to take on a huge debt.
Instead, Mahathir claimed that the HSR project was only agreed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as his way of scoring political points among Malaysians.
Analysts predict that the new government will shift focus away from infrastructural spending, and devote money to fuel subsidies and the abolishment of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which would further reduce the Malaysian government revenue.
Earlier this month (May 3), the CEO of MyHSR (the company managing the Malaysian side of the HSR) told Channel NewsAsia that cancelling the project would be a waste of the "eight years of many man and woman hours" and would incur billions in penalty for pulling out:
"If we don’t do it, not only we have to incur abortive cost in our own border, we also may have to provide compensation to Singapore. This, even though it is quite big, is minuscule compared to huge opportunities we are going to miss."
Scheduled to start building in 2019
In 2017, a senior fellow from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies estimated that the entire cost of the HSR would probably hover between S$20 billion to S$25 billion.
This will go towards paying for the laying of the tracks, integrating systems, civil infrastructure, acquiring train assets, and of course acquiring land.
The HSR project has been running quite smoothly under the HSR SG, which is a wholly-own subsidiary under the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
HSR SG has identified qualified candidates for the tender of the design of the Jurong Terminus, viaducts, tunnels, and other related infrastructure.
An Advance Engineering Study for the design of the Singapore portion of the HSR infrastructure has been awarded. Also, a Joint Developing Partner has been appointed to help both sides manage the project.
Which means that this curveball by the new Malaysian government might throw a spanner in the works.
Already, Yahoo News reports that the deadline for the primary tender of the HSR had been pushed back from June 2018 to December 2018 at the request of bidders.
An optimistic reading of the situation is that the HSR project is unlikely to be cancelled but a delay is likely to be on the cards.
Construction of the HSR is scheduled to begin in 2019, with operations beginning in December 2026.
There is no word yet on whether it will proceed as scheduled.
Top image is an artist impression of the Jurong Terminus of the HSR by Farrell.