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International relations

Malaysia and Singapore greenlight rail link delayed by Mahathir

Muhyiddin and Lee kick off $2.4bn project with meeting across border demarcation

Commuters take the Woodlands Causeway to Singapore from Johor a day before Malaysia imposes a lockdown on travel in Singapore on March 17.   © Reuters

JOHOR BARU, Malaysia -- Malaysia and Singapore have agreed to commence construction of a light-rail connection in early 2021, reviving a project that was delayed by Mahathir Mohamad's former government over cost concerns.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who pushed Mahathir out of office earlier this year, and his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong met on a causeway that links their countries on Thursday for a signing ceremony.

As the countries have yet to reopen cross-border travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, the leaders stayed on their own sides while chatting over the dividing line. This was their first face-to-face encounter since Muhyiddin took office in March.

The project, known as the Rapid Transit System, is estimated to cost a total of around 10 billion ringgit ($2.4 billion), Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong told reporters in Johor. Singapore is to shoulder 61%, with Malaysia expecting its bill to come to 3.715 billion ringgit, Wee said -- staggered over the six years of development.

The 4 km line, with only 1.3 km in Singapore, will be able to carry 10,000 passengers per hour each way, or 288,000 people a day. The journey between Bukit Chagar, in Johor Baru, and Woodlands North in Singapore will take five minutes, versus the hour or so it takes to cross by road.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Singaporean leader Lee Hsien Loong, center, celebrate the rail link project on July 30 without crossing the border between their countries, in this footage from Singapore's Prime Minister's Office via CNA. (CNA YouTube)

The RTS had been scheduled to open in 2024 but was stalled last year as Mahathir's government reviewed a host of major infrastructure deals sealed under predecessor Najib Razak -- convicted earlier this week on multiple corruption charges.

In October, Mahathir said the RTS project would go ahead after negotiations with Singapore reduced Malaysia's burden from the initial estimate of 4.93 billion ringgit.

"In the last cabinet, it has been resolved that the project would be funded via the Ministry of Transport's annual development expenditure budget, which would be done in phases throughout the six years," Wee said on Thursday.

The link is now expected to be up and running by the end of 2026, and promises to significantly reduce traffic on the two existing causeways that connect Singapore with Johor.

"It's been delayed for some time, partly because of the political changes and transitions in Malaysia, partly because of the project, partly because of COVID-19," Singapore's Lee told the press. "But whatever it is, we have now settled the details, signed the agreement and work can now start."

Lee called the project "valuable," as it "will help to ease the congestion on the causeway, which everybody knows about at least before the COVID situation. It will make commuting easier."

In a statement released after the ceremony, the countries said the RTS will feature joint customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) facilities, meaning passengers will only have to undergo clearance once at their point of departure.

Fares are still being finalized, but previous media reports have indicated each trip will cost 10 ringgit or 10 Singapore dollars ($7.25).

A joint-venture agreement has been inked between Singapore's SMRT RTS, a wholly owned subsidiary of transport operator SMRT, and Malaysia's Prasarana RTS Operations, a unit of Prasarana Malaysia Berhad. The venture is called RTS Operations and will hold the first 30-year concession.

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