Durian diplomacy gone wrong and the failed high speed rail project

Yesterday, I asked the Transport Minister to be more transparent and accountable to Singaporeans as to why the High-Speed Rail project failed.

The Transport Minister shared in Parliament today that the main reason why the High-Speed Rail (HSR) project failed was because Malaysia attempted to remove the assets company (AssetsCo), which would have provided for a joint-tendering for supply of the train system, operating network system, etc.
The Minister added that Malaysia also wanted to alter the alignment of the HSR, where it will have a station at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The Transport Minister further said that the amount of compensation to be paid by Malaysia cannot be disclosed because of confidentiality clauses, but The Edge Markets estimated that Malaysia would have to pay about $100 million in compensation (Ringgit Malaysia 300 million).

I want to thank the Transport Minister for being open to Singaporeans about what led to the HSR project being canned. Considering the new terms Malaysia wants inserted into the HSR negotiations, I support the Singapore Government's decision to drop the project.

I look back to what led us to this point where we had unnecessarily spent $270 million in taxpayers' monies and conclude that it was a series of diplomatic misreading.

durian diplomacy
PM Lee Hsien Loong met his then-counterpart, Najib Razak, over several durian sessions to smoothen the ground before the HSR project got off the ground. In 2009, Najib hailed one of the first of this 'durian diplomacy' as "a good beginning of a new era in terms of Malaysia-Singapore bilateral relations."

In 2016, posting about a lunch he and Najib had (where they again had durians) before witnessing the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on HSR project, PM Lee said, "the HSR is a massive, long-term investment. Good execution will be crucial. We need to work closely together on many joint decisions and implementation issues. PM Najib and I will give full attention to this, because we want this major project to be done right. With the HSR, people will think of Singapore-KL the same way as they think of London-Paris, Seoul-Busan, Taipei-Kaohsiung, Shanghai-Nanjing, or Tokyo-Osaka."

What PM Lee perhaps failed to see when he made that statement was that all the HSR lines he mentioned were all operating within the same respective countries (except for London-Paris which was still part of the EU then). I am not sure if a HSR project which operates between two sovereign countries even exists, but when you want to embark on such a massive project, you'd at least want to make sure that the partners you are working with can go the distance with you.

While PM Lee's administration was working on the HSR and other projects with their counterparts across the causeway, Malaysians were growing increasingly dissatisfied with their Prime Minister and were calling for a change of regime. Old foes like Mahathir and Anwar were joining hands to bring down Najib's Government. 

Did the Singapore Government become "blind" to this shifting ground in Malaysia because of its "durian diplomacy"? Or did they believe that Najib had fixed the system well to be elected for several more terms?

There is enough room to argue that Singaporeans were disadvantaged by the overtly warm relationship the Lee-Najib Governments had. The $170 million we'd lose in the HSR project is proof of that. Singapore's relationship with Malaysia has always been like that of a roller-coaster, alternating between normality and acrimony over a host of issues. 

In this instance, Singaporeans' interests were not best served by the Singapore leaders because they forgot history and leaned too much on "durian diplomacy".