HSR a socio-environmental game changer?
Lim Teck Ghee 
Can the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Railway be the game changer for the younger generation to convince them that it is better to stay put than leave for more hospitable shores

RECENTLY on Nov 1, the public was invited to provide feedback for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Railway (KL-SG HSR) on the technical, social and environmental aspects of the project over a three-month period to end on Jan 31, 2018.

The feedback will be used to assist in the evaluation and improvement of what is being touted by the Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak as “a game changer” infrastructure that will bring tremendous change and economic benefits to the cities and towns linked by the project, as well as their immediate hinterland.

Clearly the bigger gain will accrue to Malaysia since almost the entire length of the project lies in it. An estimate by research body Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organisation indicated that the HSR could potentially offer a combined US$1.12 bil (RM4.69 bil) a year in economic benefit to the two countries once it is completed by late 2026.

While Malaysia would enjoy the majority share of the upside (a little more than US$1 bil) Singapore’s share amounting to US$114 mil a year is not insignificant in view of its smaller population.

The economic benefits of the project were elaborated on by the two prime ministers when they spoke at the MoU signing of the project earlier last year in Kuala Lumpur.


Economic benefits for Malaysia and Singapore

According to Najib, he expected to see the creation of almost 30,000 jobs through the implementation of the HSR. He also noted that “if you look in terms of the big picture, this project will bring about tremendous change in the Klang Valley and Singapore, [and also] the towns in between: Seremban, Melaka, Muar, Batu Pahat, and Johor” ... “will see a new impetus in terms of economic development”.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was similarly enthusiastic. He explained that “The economic benefits include the convenience of being next door to one another, one-and-a-half hours away - a very affordable, very simple, and very easy way to get in touch to do business and make friends, in order to be one integrated economy. That means opportunities for businesses and tourists to get both destinations for the price of one”.

The Singapore prime minister’s assessment: “I see this as a very positive project and it is a major undertaking that will cost quite a lot on both sides and we have to get it right. If we do, it will be a lasting and strategic contribution” summed it for both governments.

But there is a lot more riding on the project than just the economic benefits and spillover effects emphasised to the public for now.


Socio-environmental challenges

Both leaders - though for different reasons - face similar problems in convincing their younger generation and especially educated professionals that staying back in their respective countries is the better choice for them to make in an increasingly globalised world in which there is unprecedented mobility for talent.

In 2010, the World Bank came out with an estimate of one million Malaysians living overseas. It estimated that a third among these represent brain drain - those with tertiary education who were among the diaspora. The report also noted that because of the narrow skills base, brain drain is intense and is aggravated by positive selection effects as the best and brightest leave first.

The report at that time raised the concern that brain drain has an impact on Malaysia’s aspiration to become a high-income nation and that for the country to succeed, it would need to retain talent.

This study’s finding since then appears to have been confirmed by a regional survey conducted by the recruitment firm, Hays, in 2015. Hays reported that 93% of Malaysians are prepared to leave the country in search of jobs and experience. Only just 7% of Malaysians would not move abroad for better job prospects, career advancement or better lifestyles.

Across the causeway, a similar process of wanting to leave the country is to be found. A recent online study has revealed that 42% of Singaporeans want to migrate out of the country if given a chance (see

The online study was conducted by global research company Ipsos in December 2015.

A total of 1,050 Singaporeans were surveyed with the study covering all demographics, including gender, ethnicity, age groups, occupation and household income. While most surveyed wanted to migrate, 36.6% of the respondents did not want to leave the country and 21.2% were unsure.

This is despite Singaporeans rating safety (80%), standard of education (74%) and economy (68%) as good or excellent.

Head of Ipsos’ market understanding unit Melanie Ng said: “In Singapore, a typical complaint is the fast pace of life that is synonymous with city living ... Hence, the impetus to migrate perhaps stems from a person’s desire for a different lifestyle, or for a place where someone’s unique interests are viable career opportunities.”

She added: “While Singapore is indeed a fantastic city to live in, for some Singaporeans, freedom of choice may be more important than the comfort and safety our country can provide.”

Other values which Singaporeans considered important include honest and transparent government” (72%), be just and fair to all (59%) and being progressive (52%).

Can the KL-SG HSR be the game changer for the younger generation in the two countries to convince them that it is better to stay put than leave for more hospitable shores?

Leaders from both governments must be secretly hoping that the KL-SG HSR may indeed make a difference even if it is not a game changer.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee is a public policy analyst. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 259.