SINGAPORE - The planned Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link between Johor Baru and Singapore is "behind schedule and not progressing well", said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.
This means that the start of cross-border MRT services - which were intended to ease congestion at land checkpoints - will likely be delayed beyond the original target date of Dec 31, 2024.
He was responding in a written parliamentary reply to Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), who had asked for a progress update on the RTS.
Mr Khaw, who is also Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, said several milestones set out in the legally binding RTS Link bilateral agreement have been missed. The agreement was signed in January 2018.
As part of the agreement, a joint venture company comprising Singapore's SMRT and Malaysia's Prasarana Malaysia Berhad should have been formed by June 30 last year.
It should then have been appointed as the RTS Link operator through a concession agreement with Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Malaysian government by September 2018.
But over the past few months, Malaysia has indicated that it is considering replacing its joint venture partner, Mr Khaw said.
It has, however, delayed confirming this partner - first until September last year, then December. On Dec 28, it requested to be given until Feb 28 this year to do so.
"As a result of these delays, the joint venture company has not even been incorporated to date, let alone signed the concession agreement," Mr Khaw said.
"Meanwhile, Malaysia has also unilaterally suspended bilateral discussions to appoint the RTS Link operator since August 2018, pending its confirmation of the Malaysian joint venture partner."
Under the bilateral agreement, both countries are obliged to jointly call a fair, international and transparent open tender to appoint the operating company if this has not been done by the original deadlines, or if the joint venture company has not been incorporated - unless both governments mutually agree to postpone these deadlines.
In November, Singapore sent draft tender documents to Malaysia. But Malaysia has not responded to them.
This means there is a "real risk" that both countries will not be ready to call a joint open tender by March 31, Mr Khaw said.
Missing this deadline may in turn lead to the appointed operating company being unable to procure the Thomson-East Coast Line core systems for the project before these procurement options expire, he added.
Singapore has been diligent in implementing the RTS agreement, Mr Khaw said, pointing to how the LTA has assembled nearly 70 staff, including civil and systems engineers, to do so. Civil tenders have also been called to construct infrastructure for the project, including Singapore's RTS Link Woodlands North station and its portion of the RTS Link crossing bridge.
Mr Khaw added that Singapore has been reasonable and flexible "because we understand Malaysia's circumstances following the May 2018 Malaysian general elections".
But there are "serious implications" to missing the agreed deadlines and failing to engage with Singapore to work on jointly calling an open tender to appoint the operating company.
"The bilateral agreement is an international treaty that is binding on the countries that signed it, regardless of any changes in the Government," he said. "The bilateral agreement makes clear each country's responsibility towards the project, and the consequences of not meeting these responsibilities."
Mr Khaw also said that Singapore will continue to take a "constructive approach" to move the project forward, and remains fully committed to implementing it.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.