MRT too big, too early, says Mahathir

PUTRAJAYA: For someone who two decades ago was criticised for his alleged penchant for mega projects, Dr Mahathir Mohamad is unapologetic in criticising big undertakings by the previous administration.

“We’ve wasted a lot of money,” he said in a recent interview with FMT. “Some of these projects are not necessary.”

He singled out the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) as an example, questioning the lavishness of its design and advancing his opinion that it would make economic sense only some time in the future.

The MRT was heavily promoted by the Najib Razak administration as a system that would radically transform Kuala Lumpur’s lagging transport infrastructure. It was touted as the answer to the transportation woes of the city and areas surrounding it.

Mahathir, under whom Malaysia’s first city train networks – the Ampang and Kelana Jaya light rapid transit lanes – were launched, admitted that there was plenty of excitement when the MRT began operations last year.

“People were very happy to see the MRT built,” he said. “It cost RM50 billion, but the number of passengers using the MRT is very small, about 130,000 only. That’s not enough to give any return.”

When it was pointed out to him that the project was designed to cater to Klang Valley’s future growth and therefore could be economically justified later, he said: “That may be so. But you can build a lighter system that does not carry much, such as the monorail. With MRT, it is a whole train. It’s big and it costs money.”

At the height of Malaysia’s economic boom in the 1990s, Mahathir’s critics often spoke of his obsession with large structures, some of which they said were white elephants.

The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and the Sepang International Circuit were among his many pet projects and he closely monitored them. These two landmarks were completed at a time that was not favourable to Mahathir. The Asian currency crisis was then at its height, and Malaysia was one of the countries badly hit.

Many critics at the time said they were wasteful and accused him of squandering public funds on unsustainable projects.

However, Mahathir has always maintained that the airport and many other projects he promoted are necessary.

When asked about this in an FMT interview in May 2017, a year before his dramatic return to prime-ministership, he pointed to the growth of traffic in KLIA over the last two decades.

“To get land for an airport is very difficult,” he said in that interview. “We reserved 25,000 acres of land for the new airport. Look at the growth. We opened the airport in 1998. In about 20 years, the growth went from 18 million to 42 million passengers.”

Can’t the same argument be used to justify the MRT, which involved compensation payments for the takeover of land, including areas in Kuala Lumpur’s congested city centres?

Mahathir doesn’t think so. He said the problem with the MRT lay principally in the Najib government’s neglect to negotiate for a more reasonable, less expensive design.

“So they built a very luxurious system,” he said. “You look at the stations. Wow!”

Speaking of the two lines constructed in the 1990s, he emphasised their cost-effectiveness, saying: “They are very normal stations, not luxurious.”

The MRT is among the projects affected by the government’s move to scale back or cancel mega infrastructure projects, as promised in Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto. One of these moves was to renegotiate costs for the MRT2, which runs from Sungai Buloh to Serdang and Putrajaya. It is said that the government is able to save billions of ringgit through the scaling down of stations, including cutting back on station entrances.

Mahathir’s government had earlier cancelled the MRT3, a circle line within the capital city that would have cost about RM45 billion.

Recalling the construction of the two lines between Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir said it was done at a time when the government had no experience in such mass transport projects.

It was assumed that members of the public would eventually ride the trains to get around the two cities, he added.

“We assumed also that people would not use their cars, but the trains,” he said.

“Initially, as you know, people didn’t want to use them. But once they found out how convenient they were, the number of riders was so big that there was no room.

“When you build something that will only have full ridership maybe 20 or 30 years from now, it is too early to build. You can build in stages.”