Stalled Malaysia-Singapore RTS link gets fresh push as ties thaw post-Mahathir

Malaysia Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a ceremony held on the causeway between the two countries to mark the renewal of an agreement on the Rapid Transit System metro link.
PHOTO: Facebook/Kenali Johor Jom

Malaysia and Singapore on Thursday signed a fresh agreement to proceed with the stalled construction of a metro link between the two neighbours seen as crucial to easing traffic congestion at one of the world’s busiest border crossings.

The pact was marked with a ceremony attended by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Muhyiddin Yassin at the causeway between the countries – the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders since the start of the coronavirus pandemic .

Resumption of the US$880 million (S$1.2 billion) project comes as the countries’ bilateral ties have stabilised with Muhyiddin at the helm in Malaysia, following the March ousting of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir, a two-time prime minister known for his hawkish views of Singapore, ordered the suspension of the 4.4km Rapid Transit System (RTS) pending an internal review following the victory of his Pakatan Harapan alliance in 2018’s general election.

Along with the suspension of work on the RTS, work on a US$25 billion high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore was also frozen.

Muhyiddin’s government has until December to decide whether to proceed with the latter project.

Speaking to reporters after the signing of the pact, Singapore’s Lee said the new deal would be “valuable” in easing congestion on the causeway.

“It also shows the cooperation which is going on all the time between Singapore and Malaysia … even during difficult times like now,” said Lee, adding that he and Muhyiddin would seek to continue the tradition of the two countries’ leaders going on an annual retreat, despite coronavirus restrictions.

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“We are two close neighbours and there is a lot that we need to talk about, not least how we can get a safe flow of people between the two territories.”

In a joint statement, Thursday’s refreshed pact on the metro link was said to underscore “the deep and enduring bilateral relationship between both countries, and the collective desire to strengthen our win-win partnership”.

“When completed the RTS link will ease causeway congestion, improve connectivity, foster people-to-people ties and generate shared economic and social benefits,” the statement said.

Under the amended agreement, the rail link’s depot will now be situated in Malaysia rather than Singapore as agreed earlier.

Putrajaya has also changed the company that will fund, build, own and maintain civil infrastructure for the project within its borders.

The link is expected to begin operations by the end of 2026 and will connect with Singapore’s extensive Mass Rapid Transit network.

On a typical pre-pandemic day, more than 300,000 people used either the causeway – which was constructed in 1923 – or another land crossing called the Second Link to enter Singapore. Most of the commuters were Malaysians working in the city state.

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Such trips have ground to a near standstill recently, however, because of travel restrictions put in place to contain the spread of coronavirus. Limited cross-border travel between the neighbours is set to resume on August 17.

Dylan Loh, an assistant professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the fresh deal is likely to herald “warmer ties” between the countries in the wake of 73-year-old Muhyiddin’s ascension to power following a political coup within Pakatan Harapan in late February that led to Mahathir’s resignation as prime minister.

Muhyiddin currently governs under the aegis of an unofficial Perikatan Nasional alliance. The government has the support of MPs from the United Malays National Organisation, which was defeated in the 2018 polls.

Diplomatic insiders on both sides of the causeway view Muhyiddin as being more keen on enhanced cooperation with Singapore.

From 1986 to 1995, Muhyiddin served as the chief minister of the state of Johor, which borders the city state.

Singaporean officials have traditionally had close ties with their counterparts in Johor as well as with the Malaysian state’s ruling monarchs.

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Francis Hutchinson, a Malaysia researcher with Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said Muhyiddin’s track record in Johor – his current parliamentary seat is in the state – meant he was “well aware of the flows of people to Singapore for work, as well as the demand for products and services from Malaysia in the city-state”.

“I agree that we will see warmer ties. It is in the public domain how Mahathir sees the Singapore-Malaysia relationship,” said Loh.

“Under Muhyiddin, I expect to see positive differences in the bilateral relationship.”

Nawaljeet Singh, a Malaysia-focused senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the in-person meeting between the two leaders sent a strong signal to businesses and citizens of both countries that the governments were focused on strengthening bilateral ties “despite the historic recent developments in both countries on the political, economic and public health fronts”.

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With both economies headed into unprecedented recessions, the immediate spillover from the project into both consumption and capital investment of both countries was to be welcomed, said Yeah Kim Leng of Malaysia’s Sunway University.

Said Yeah: “In the longer term, increased bilateral visitor volume will add to higher demand and spending in both countries.

"The deal reached also signals closer ties and further integration of the two economies.”

Focus will now turn to talks surrounding the high-speed rail link. Following the change in government in March, Muhyiddin’s officials asked for an extension until December to make a final decision on the project.

Mahathir, who initially suspended the project upon taking power, had signalled in the last few months of his tenure that he would be agreeable to proceeding with it, provided some adjustments were made to cut costs.

The RTS link and high-speed rail project were both agreed upon during former prime minister Najib Razak’s time in power, from 2009 to 2018.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.