Think long-term about Johor-Singapore transit system

One thing I remember from the many statements made by Mahathir 1.0 is this: If we want to compete against Singapore, our facilities and services must be on par or of higher standard. If our facilities and services are inferior, then we should forget about competing.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad made many similar statements in the course of his previous administration of about 23 years.

I recall this particular one because it was said at the opening of the Tanjung Pelepas container port in Johor, which was built to compete directly against the long-standing giant – the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) – for container trade and transshipment traffic in Southeast Asia.

Not long after its opening, the Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP) managed to attract two well-known market leaders in international container shipping to shift their port base from PSA to this new port.

One of the key factors that attracted these two major shipping lines was that PTP was designed and built to cater to the next generation of container vessels.

The Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System can draw a lesson from the PTP.

The previous government signed an agreement to implement RTS to link Johor Bahru with the Singapore MRT so that travellers across the causeway could choose and benefit from using public transport between the two cities.

A study was commissioned in 2016 by both governments which shared the cost of more than RM30 million to investigate, analyse, formulate, propose and design a suitable system that would facilitate the movements of daily passenger traffic and address the needs of both countries in terms of border control.

But not long ago, the Pakatan Harapan government via the transport ministry decided to put the RTS proposal on hold. It had to pay a hefty penalty for the delay in implementing the agreement.

The so-called review period has ended and now, instead of going ahead with the MRT agreement, the Malaysian side has suggested a light rail transit (LRT) system as opposed to the MRT.

The transport ministry said the LRT would be cheaper and similar to the one in Kuala Lumpur.

There is no logic in this statement, as no LRT system in Johor Bahru will be eventually linked to the one in Kuala Lumpur.

In fact, Kuala Lumpur also has the MRT, a much bigger and better system than the LRT. And soon, Kuala Lumpur will also have MRT2. Going by the ministry’s logic, we should therefore go for the MRT, shouldn’t we?

The transport ministry has a simplistic approach. It says if we were to decide on the MRT, the trains would most likely be running empty.

This is an unsound observation given the volume of today’s demand and the future passenger forecast between Johor Bahru and Singapore.

Any passenger in Kuala Lumpur who has used both the LRT and the MRT can testify that the MRT is overall superior: the ride is more comfortable and the coaches are wider and longer, and therefore more spacious.

Many experienced public transit users know that the LRT will not serve its purpose in the heavy-volume corridor between Johor and Singapore.

LRT is cheaper? Marginally, maybe, on the train sets. But the key elements making up the entire systems, and which will likely take up about 80% of the total cost, include basic infrastructure, the elevated bridge, the stations, electricity supply, and the signalling and operating systems.

Again, the differential between the LRT and MRT of this 80% cost could be quite small.

In any case, why is Putrajaya suddenly conscious of the cost differential when it did not mind the hefty penalty?

Instead of focusing on saving the pennies and discussing the nitty gritty, why don’t we look at what possibilities the MRT could bring to Johor Bahru and beyond?

Given that Johor Bahru has no proper transit system and that traffic congestion is getting worse, why not look at extending the MRT to places such as Kulai and Senai or Permas Jaya and Pasir Gudang? The MRT could become the public transport backbone for Johor Bahru. And the Iskandar region? Forget the costly but ineffective Bus Rapid Transit system by opting for the MRT instead.

Have we considered offering MRT Singapore use of the end of our network line as their car storage yard and MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) facility? Singapore would surely be grateful if we save it such sizeable land. The people of Johor could also find employment in such a facility.

How sure are we that future travel between Johor Bahru and Singapore will not be reversed? Given the population size of Singapore (4.6 million) and that industries in Singapore could be relocated to Johor Bahru due to land shortage and price and labour factors, it is quite conceivable that in the future, Singaporeans could be travelling to Johor Bahru for work. Singaporeans, after all, are already the biggest investors in Johor.

By that time, Johor Bahru would need not only an efficient network of MRT as a form of public transport, but also one of equivalent standards, if not better – a seamless system that serves both countries.

So, there are benefits to consider in the words of our wise old man.

One thing is for sure: We should not be thinking about building an inferior facility or offering inferior services when faced by our closest neighbour. The MRT is certainly the answer for RTS.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.