Decision not to sell PLUS lost chance to save money, says economist

The government has decided that highway operator PLUS will remain with Khazanah Nasional and EPF.

GEORGE TOWN: An economist said the government’s decision not to sell highway operator PLUS meant it has lost a chance to save money and use it for more pressing needs.

Ramon Navaratnam said if a party had taken PLUS off the government’s hands, the money saved could have been used to help the poor and reduce income inequality in the long run.

“If the highways are not privatised, the public sector would be burdened. This could have been an opportunity to divest from government-linked companies (GLCs). But we appear to be going in the same old ways.

“I’m disappointed, because if we had sold PLUS, the proceeds could have been used for anti-poverty projects and other community advancement plans for the B40 group.

“There must be a focus on the sharing of prosperity, but we see rich benefitting (from past government programmes) and the poor continuing to suffer.

“The poor need to be prioritised. We need to reduce income inequality, that is priority,” the former transport ministry secretary-general said.

Navaratnam said the other opportunity lost from the decision not to sell PLUS was a fresh, sustainable national transportation policy.

He said while the news of lower tolls on PLUS-owned highways from next month was welcome, it should be made exclusively for low-income earners.

However, he said lower tolls were myopic at best as the opportunity to set new goals for national transportation remained lost.

“What do this no-sale of PLUS and lower tolls say about the future of the transport policy in Malaysia? Are we going to encourage cars, rail or a riverine transport system for Sabah and Sarawak?

“These were issues we raised decades ago but somehow, there has been a lack of political will to go ahead with them. The way to go is more public transport.

“With the number of deaths on our roads, especially on highways, we are encouraging more car driving and motorcycle ownership. And to add to that, we are giving cheaper tolls, which ultimately means more traffic.

“A rail system could be developed at a cheaper rate and more efficiently run with fewer accidents on the road,” he said.

Announcing the government’s decision to keep PLUS under Khazanah Nasional Bhd and the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) on Friday, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the Cabinet had studied all the proposals made by different bidders.

Maju Holdings, Widad Business Group, RRJ Capital, tycoon duo Halim Saad and Wong Gian Kui had offered to buy out PLUS from the government.

Putrajaya also announced that toll rates would be reduced by 18% from next month with no hikes for the next 38 years. In return, the government has extended PLUS’ concession period by another 20 years, from 2038 to 2058.

The highways operated by PLUS – the North-South Expressway (NSE), the New Klang Valley Expressway (NKVE), the ELITE highway and the Penang Bridge – span over 800km.