SINGAPORE, July 23 — Popping by Kuala Lumpur to watch a show and attend a business meeting, and then returning to Singapore in time for dinner with the family — this was the rosy picture painted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High-Speed Rail (HSR) project on Tuesday (July 19).
But beyond a speedier commute, Lee had a bigger vision for the project: One that would “change the way we think about Singapore and Malaysia” and “draw our peoples and economies together”, akin to the London-Paris, Taipei-Kaohsiung and Tokyo-Osaka links.
Indeed, in the way Japan saw factories springing up along the Tokyo-Osaka high-speed rail link and tourism breathing new life into the towns dotting the tracks, the same could be the case when the HSR link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is completed in 2026, say experts.
With the ripple effect of the project, development in Malaysia looks set to surge, as developers fight for the newly-accessible prime estate along the tracks, awakening now-sleepy towns hosting transit stations.
Back in the Republic, firms can consider moving their operations across the Causeway, stretching their revenue margins with more affordable rent and labour. Retirement villas — with sprawling gardens and swimming pools — on Malaysian soil without the sky-high property prices seen here, could be an accessible reality.
Said urban land use planner Goh Bok Yen, a private consultant for the Malaysian government: “If you’re talking about regional exposure, (Kuala Lumpur) is certainly on the weaker side (compared to Singapore). But Kuala Lumpur has the better hinterland, while Singapore’s hinterland is Malaysia. If you put these two centres together, both can become a more diversified regional centre.”
But all that glitters is not gold: with development comes the possibility of pollution and cultural erosion. “Local authorities have to watch for overdevelopment, and properly plan their urban blueprint along the HSR line,” said Dr Faridzwan Abdul Ghafar, who holds a PhD in urban planning and conservation from the University of Science, Malaysia.
From sleepy towns to bright lights
It was the Japanese who revolutionised the HSR industry with the launch of their Shinkansen bullet trains in 1964. It made cross-country travel affordable for the masses, and brought commuters straight from Osaka to Toyko, the capital city of Japan.
The Shinkansen was known by another name — “yume no chotokkyu” or “super express of dreams”.
Dr Kazuaki Hirashi, a deputy general manager at Mitsubishi Research Institute recounted how the HSR had a “huge impact” on the economy.
“In terms of regional development along the line, it boosted the sightseeing industry, as well as some industrial fields. Many factories relocated from Tokyo to cities along the line. One reason is that Tokyo is too expensive. With the relocation of the industries, many people have also moved from Tokyo to cities with Shinkansen,” he told TODAY.
The Singapore-Kuala Lumpur HSR project is bookended by Jurong East and Bandar Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Along the way, there are six transit stations in Iskandar Puteri, Batu Pahat, Muar, Ayer Keroh, Seremban and Putrajaya.
Goh, the urban land use planner, noted that the towns with transit stations are likely to see a “big push forward” economically.
“What can you do in Muar now? Nothing much. You’re still stopping in a furniture town. It needs a breakthrough,” he said.
Tapping the high-speed connection, Goh suggested that multinational companies could position their headquarters in Singapore, and shift their production lines to the smaller towns in Malaysia.
These smaller towns could potentially be used for “back office functions”, such as accounting and billing operations for credit card companies, said National University of Singapore sociologist Ho Kong Chong.
“Some of the smaller, less vital office functions can be moved to smaller towns, where land is cheaper. Commuting is easy if the ticketing prices are realistic,” he said.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, noted that after the North-South Expressway was constructed in the 1980s, development along the road outpaced other towns, and the same could be seen with the completion of the HSR.
While most of the land surrounding Seremban, Malacca, Muar, Batu Pahat and Iskandar Puteri are designed for agriculture and rural industry purpose, the coming of the HSR could transform it into a landscape of mass housing, commercial and heavy industry, said Dr Faridzwan.
Locals could also benefit in terms of education. “I’ve been told that few private enterprises are planning to build universities and colleges in one of the towns along the HSR line,” added Dr Faridzwan.
Dr Lin Weiqiang, from the National University of Singapore’s geography department, on the other hand, felt that Kuala Lumpur would likely be the unequivocal winner of the project, and Malaysians living in towns along the railway line would flock to the capital for work instead.
“The make-up of Malaysia is different from Japan, which has Tokyo and Osaka as city centres. In Malaysia, there’s only one primary city — Kuala Lumpur,” he said.
Malaysians could find it easier to travel to a city for work, and then return home for family time at the end of the day, but they could also find it just as easy to relocate from their hometown to the capital for work with the convenience of the HSR, pointed out Dr Lin.
Nonetheless, clusters of malls and recreational developments could spring up around the stations, in turn driving up demand for rail services.
For Singaporeans, more room to grow
Back across the Causeway, Singaporeans could benefit from more affordable housing options, to opportunities for business expansion.
Assoc Prof Ho pointed out that the standard of living in Singapore is costlier than other cities, and that could prompt citizens to move across the Causeway in search of more affordable retirement homes. “My sense is that we’re becoming like the Japanese. They move to retirement communities all over Asia — Bali, Cameron Highlands. They’re partially driven by cost and (the weather).”
Lured by cheaper property prices or rental rates, Singaporeans or foreigners could choose to stay in Malaysia, and commute across the Causeway for work, said Dr Oh.
He said: “Companies have flexi-hours nowadays. So employees will only need to come in for a day or two (each week), and they can settle outside of Singapore, which is good because it’s less crowded.”
Singapore firms would have a wider talent pool to choose from, with more Malaysians taking advantage of the easy commute to travel over for work. And not all of them see working in a Singapore enterprise as the end-game. Some are searching for a springboard to future job opportunities overseas, said Dr Oh.
If the experience of Taiwan, which introduced a high-speed link between Taipei and Kaohsiung in 2007, is any indication, the Singapore-Malaysia HSR could also keep family ties alive even as they venture further to seek opportunities.
“Before the HSR, a lot of young people will say (they) need to travel five hours to go back and see (their) parents. So now they can’t use that as an excuse anymore. Young parents with children also go back more often to see their own parents. So lifestyles have changed as a result of this,” said Max Liu, an assistant vice president at Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation. – MMO.