Commentary: Connecting Singapore and Malaysia without an HSR challenging but alternatives should be explored
Resuming daily travel is the focus, but both countries should also explore digital connectivity and clean energy for landmark projects, says Stewart Nixon.
SINGAPORE: With the matter of compensation finalised and the S$103 million settlement paid, the latest chapter in longstanding attempts to connect Kuala Lumpur and Singapore with high-speed rail (HSR) has concluded.
The joint statement issued in end-March was short and sweet, reasserting the amicable agreement of terms and the continued commitment of both countries to advancing future cooperation.
Missing were tangible alternative measures to fill the void left by the HSR, with Malaysians and Singaporeans alike left to lament the unfulfilled potential of enhanced people and business connectivity.
"The HSR would have cut that travelling time by at least five hours. It's a shame that it did not (materialise)," 29-year old F&B manager Nurlina Anuar, who works in Singapore and whose family lives in Klang, lamented to the New Straits Times.
With bilateral relations enjoying a strong and cordial phase, and a confluence of shared challenges further engendering cooperation, opportunities to deepen connectivity should not be lost with the HSR termination.
READ: Commentary: KL-Singapore HSR termination risks Malaysia falling behind on transport connectivity
The already significant integration of the Malaysian and Singaporean economies has made maintaining and restoring cross-border goods movements a top priority, with Singapore vaccinating selected cargo drivers from Malaysia to minimise the risk of imported infections.
Resuming freer people movements for work, business, family visits and more is equally critical but more complex, with vaccine certification under the spotlight as a potential facilitator.
Globally, national development of vaccine certification and multilateral recognition have failed to match the extraordinary achievements of vaccine developers and manufacturers. Bilateral discussions are comparatively advanced, with hopes for an early resumption of people movements delivering enormous benefits to Malaysia-Singapore connectivity.
As Malaysia and Singapore consider bilateral vaccine certification, they must be mindful of global norms – including recent WHO guidance – highlighting the protection of privacy, equity, accessibility and sustainability as key design principles.
After all, requiring proof of vaccination for travel may entrench an inequitable barrier, promote vaccine nationalism and encourage informal markets that undermine the primary objective of vaccinating for global herd immunity.
Of more immediate benefit would be if vaccine certification prompts greater integration of pandemic response efforts, such as collaboration on public health mechanisms, frontline worker exchanges and support with vaccine rollout.
Singapore and Malaysia are pursuing national vaccine rollouts with greatly different timeframes, presenting an immediate challenge to certificate enabled travel.
Singapore has a small and clustered population that may be among the earliest fully vaccinated, whereas Malaysia has a larger, more geographically spread and significantly undocumented population that represents a much greater logistical challenge.
With the largest bilateral gains conditional on both countries completing their rollouts, there are strong mutual incentives to collaborate towards accelerating Malaysia’s rollout.
The Johor state government recognises this and has announced a special vaccination app for Malaysians who commute to Singapore, hoping to separately register this group with a view to fast-tracked vaccination enabling freer travel.
PREFERENTIAL PEOPLE MOVEMENT
Vaccine certification (and even vaccination) is not a silver bullet but a mechanism complementing public health measures.
Nuanced measures have been deployed effectively within countries to refrain from arbitrarily restricting movement, yet blunter instruments persist for many international borders.
Cooperation on people movements between Malaysia and Singapore is as coordinated as it has ever been due to pandemic necessity. However, for the estimated 300,000 Malaysians who used to commute to Singapore each day prior to the coronavirus, arrangements remain far from ideal.
Employers, employees and families today have had to settle for Periodic Commuting Arrangements requiring a three-month stay at their destination of work. Green lanes for business travellers were periodically open but closed as virus cases in Malaysia surged.
There has been ample time to develop and agree on alternative approaches that increase travel frequency while minimising acceptable risk.
Whether this involves additional testing, additional protective equipment, monitoring arrangements, movement restrictions within countries or people bubbles, both sides should continue to explore options for those willing to sacrifice certain freedoms to remain mobile.
Developing such arrangements requires understanding the circumstances of frequent migrants and the businesses now short on workers as a result of border restrictions. Opportunities to address gaps and encourage the transfer of skills and investment across the border should be explored.
Such discussions should provide a forum for discussing preferential longer-term arrangements for migrant settlement and integration between the two countries.
(Listen to Malaysians share their very different experiences of living through the pandemic in Johor, Kuala Lumpur and Sabah on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:)
DIGITAL CONNECTIVITY AS THE VIRTUAL HIGH-SPEED RAIL ALTERNATIVE
The unprecedented travel disruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have emphasised the imperative of increased digital connectivity.
Bilateral visitor arrivals plummeted by 16.6 million persons or 90.7 per cent in 2020, and while expenditure related to physical mobility is difficult to substitute, around a quarter of visitor expenditure ordinarily goes to shopping and travel constraints have freed up disposable income ordinarily earmarked for holidays.
The challenge is to attract more consumers by bringing shopping to them, with complementary efforts to improve delivery logistics.
Singapore is well-positioned in terms of infrastructure, as a global leader in fixed broadband speeds and regional leader in logistics performance.
Malaysia aims to bridge the gap with its recently announced RM21 billion (S$6.8 billion) Digital Economy Blueprint, while Singaporean ride-share operator Grab has injected much needed competition into Malaysia’s delivery sector.
Singaporean online platforms have been major beneficiaries of surging online sales in 2020, with Shopee and Lazada the two largest e-commerce providers in Malaysia and among the top three at home. Malaysian platforms however have comparatively little penetration of the Singaporean market.
Thus far, Chinese companies have been the major beneficiaries of surging online sales, with China the market leader for e-commerce in both countries.
Since revenue from Singapore shoppers in Malaysia has declined sharply due to COVID-19, more effort must be made to translate these transactions onto an online platform.
For instance, Singapore shoppers who have been starved from their regular shopping trips to JB would relish buying their necessities through an online mall, with seamless delivery.
Malaysian shopping expenditure in Singapore in 2019 is at an estimated S$176 million, compared to about S$2.7 billion for Singaporean shopping in Malaysia.
Bilateral efforts to harmonise digital regulations could also play an important facilitating role. Singapore has declared its intent to pursue arrangements with Japan, Australia and New Zealand among others, and there should be little impediment to progressing similar with Malaysia.
READ: Commentary: Of all places, Singaporeans miss that trip to JB most – and not just because of the food
CLEAN ENERGY AS ICONIC BILATERAL PROJECT
The preceding measures focus on bilateral cooperation that would be both mutually beneficial and affordable, cognisant of cost being the major, overt rationale for HSR termination. There is limited scope for alternative major projects requiring large injections of Malaysian budget finance in the near-term.
Could another landmark project fill the HSR void? Clean energy generation and exchange provides a good candidate, with scope for major private sector led investments conditional on unwinding sector monopolies.
Singapore has a reliable energy supply but its electricity prices are around three times those in Malaysia. Its limited land mass constrains renewable energy generation, so some creativity and cooperation are required to meet its long-term carbon commitments.
An agreement trialling investment in renewable imports was reportedly signed last month, with a modest aim of supplying 1.5 per cent of Singapore’s electricity. The deal is expected to tap into leading utilities provider TNB’s existing hydroelectric power supplies and generate new investment in solar farms.
This is a promising start that could be scaled up to the benefit of both countries. Exports to Singapore could help kickstart substantial growth in Malaysia’s renewable energy generation and prompt a greater commitment to shifting its energy mix.
It would ideally encourage long promised reforms liberalising Malaysia’s power sector – still a state-run monopoly with heavily subsidised electricity prices – and reducing dependence on oil and gas (also dominated by government-linked Petronas), which represent major obstacles to a cleaner energy mix.
KEEPING THE HSR DREAM ALIVE
As beneficial as the above would be to deepening bilateral relations, nothing can be as singularly inspiring and transformative as the HSR. Without generating false hope, the door should be left open to resurrecting the project when circumstances improve.
Three immediate actions to keep the dream alive would be to: Continue discussions to resolve differences around project structure; explore alternative financing arrangements less dependent on the Malaysian budget; and keep the compensation payment for the HSR.
READ: Commentary: Did the KL-Singapore high-speed rail unravel because of costs? Note other railways in Asia
On the third point, Singapore reinvesting the compensation payment in scoping work or pledging to return it upon revival of the project would provide a powerful symbol of its commitment to bilateral cooperation on a future HSR.
Like all lasting relationships, bilateral ties between Malaysia and Singapore ebb and flow as political and situational tides change. When conditions are good for swimming, both sides should make waves.
The HSR dream may have faded but opportunities abound to strengthen connections.
Stewart Nixon is a research scholar at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University and a recent research visitor at the University of Malaya.