By Roslan Abdul Hamid
I feel that there’s been a lot of distortion on this subject, which is of utmost national importance at a time when our economic recovery is picking up pace, as we transition to the Covid-19 endemic stage.
Allow me to draw on my experience as a 67-year-old man who has seen the country gone through different phases of development. Historically, Malaysians are quite averse to mega projects at the initial stage.
I still remember the hue and cry when the government wanted to build the North-South Expressway (NSE) in the 1980s. But just a few years into its completion, the highway has proven to be a major artery linking key economic zones in the Peninsula that spurred our industrialisation effort which led to the country being labelled as one of the “economic tigers” in the mid-1990s.
Other infrastructural projects like the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), the first Penang Bridge and the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCC) also faced similar skepticisms when the ideas were first conceived.
Today, there are already two bridges linking Penang and the mainland. An undersea tunnel or a third bridge linking the two land masses is possibly in the pipeline. And nobody imagined the exponential growth the LCC in Sepang had experienced, especially prior to the pandemic.
Without these mega infrastructure projects, the country may still be the agrarian economic backwater that it was when it achieved Independence in 1957. The connectivity enabled by these projects had allowed the country to leapfrog into the industrialised age and beyond.
I see striking similarities between the current hesitation in building the HSR and the opposition towards the mega infrastructure projects mentioned above. The proposed HSR is not just about building tracks and running wagons on them to move people.
In much the same way the NSE generated economic spillover effects in the 1980s, I am quite sure the proposed HSR will achieve the same results. Examples in China, Taiwan and Europe have seen how towns and cities dotted along the high-speed rails saw massive economic transformation within a short time. Malaysia should and will be able to replicate this with the HSR.
The proposed HSR can complement existing infrastructures like conventional rail, highways and airlines and at the same time create new opportunities and markets.
Furthermore, if the proposed HSR, shelved in January, is revived, it will be able to create massive job opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled positions. A project of this scale would need to fill up sizable positions like civil engineers, electronic professionals, programmers, administrative executives and accountants, whether directly or from the downstream industries. This comes at a time when unemployment as well as underemployment is still pervasive owing to the knock-on effect from the Covid-19 pandemic.
We can no longer allow many of our skilled labour and professionals to continue taking up jobs they are overqualified for, such as delivery riders or in other forms of the gig economy.
Globally, the economy is showing signs of slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels. We cannot risk being outpaced by countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. As it is, the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail is on track for completion next year, making it the first such infrasture project of its kind in this region.
Worldwide, governments are pouring in huge amounts of money on infrastructure projects as global trade grows by leaps and bounds. To succeed in the cutthroat global trade game, speedy and efficient connectivity is key. And the HSR offers these and more.
Obviously, the benefits of building the HSR is immense. What is worrying is the government’s feet-dragging in getting this project off the ground. It’s time to move on and get out of the rut.