This Op-Ed has been contributed by Dr.Kua Kia Soon and provides an brilliant independent critical overview of what the title unambiguously suggests is “Malaysia’s transport mess”. While it examines the overall situation and climate from the vantage of Malaysia as a whole, it is no less relevant for the circumstances describing transport policy and practice in Penang. We thank him for his permission to publish the entire article as follows. This is an important piece to guide critical thinking and informed action in a sector which has been lagging badly and high costs to the citizens of Penang and Malaysia.
Reform Malaysia’s transport mess
– By Kua Kia Soong
It’s time for Malaysia to get serious about developing a more integrated urban transport system in our major cities
We are supposed to be on the final leg of the sprint toward attaining high-income status in 2020 only to be reminded by the World Bank that it’s time for Malaysia to get serious about developing a more integrated urban transport system in our major cities. Today, Penang, Johor Baru and Kota Kinabalu are facing similar challenges as those in Kuala Lumpur, says the World Bank. The World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor report (June 2015) which shows that the planning and delivery of urban transport is not even integrated for public transport comes under the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD), while private transport comes under the Works Ministry, with little coordination between the two.
So what’s new?
In the early 1980s, traffic jams, worsening air quality and poor provision of public transport were already apparent across the country, especially in our capital city, when Dr Mahathir became Prime Minister. And during the nineties, “Concerned with the worsening traffic congestion in the city, the Government ordered relevant agencies and public transport companies to come up with solutions to the problem within 12 days!” (NST, 24.1.97)
The quality of public transport continued to worsen as the non-accountable (non-elected) municipal councils and the property and motor industry barons had their day. More than enough taxpayers’ money had already been spent on endless studies of the transport problem. When the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (Jica) was contracted to undertake the Kuala Lumpur Transport Master Plan in 1997, it was the EIGHTH such study since 1963! (The Sun, 20.8.97)
“This study was clearly biased towards capital intensive road building projects. Policies toward encouraging the use of public transport and the restraining of private transport use during peak hours were noticeably absent.” (ibid)
Subsequent plans did call for a total transport plan including adequate public transport services but somehow, the political will was absent. In 1990, Japan’s Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund warned that Malaysia faced critical bottlenecks in its infrastructure if nothing was done to reform our transport system. (FEER, 5.4.90)
The National Car & Highways Projects
When I was Member of Parliament from 1990 to 1995, I brought up many of these issues. Thus, the Government had certainly been forewarned about these problems. Many of the inside stories of the numerous contracts have been hidden from the public through the years involving corruption and the lack of accountability resulting in delays and inflated costs of these transport projects.
The overriding cause of the lack of an integrated public transport system in Malaysia is undoubtedly the priority put on the National Car Project and its parallel Highways Project as the vehicle for corporate expansion. This is clear from the figures for public development expenditure for transport from 1981 to 1995.
“Traffic congestion in the Klang Valley is expected to gobble up some RM3.6 billion in lost productivity and fuel wastage this year, said Transport Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik.” (NST, 18.1.94)
As was typical of the times, the minister gave an Ah Q rationalization:
“The problem, he noted, is attributable to Malaysia’s economic success…It is better to have problems of success than problems of failure.” (ibid)
Mercifully for him, he is no longer in a position to respond to the latest World Bank report.
Failure of the Privatisation Policy
Dr Mahathir launched the privatization policy during the mid-eighties recession. The financial crisis was worsened by the fact that we had an over-developed public sector. This had come about because after 1971, the New Economic Policy had created more and more Bumiputera trustee enterprises and agencies. The public sector development expenditure for the Fourth Malaysia Plan (1981-85) was RM80 billion. Out of this, 34.5% was accounted for by the Non-Financial Public Enterprises, which were mainly Bumiputera trustee enterprises.
We have been told that privatization has generated vast amounts of revenue through the sale of state assets. In fact, public revenue should have been much more than the pittance Malaysian taxpayers got from the sale of these state assets. This is clear from this answer by the Government to a question in Parliament by the writer in 1991:
As Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah pointed out in 1991:
“Every time a scheme is privatized, we hear of millions, if not hundreds of millions change hands to people who do not have a stake in the undertaking. For instance, there is the possibility of privatizing the railways. According to the Prime Minister, the railways are worth twenty billion ringgit. It is going to be privatized for only 200 million ringgit. And I know who is going to get this railway. If it is not his cronies, it will be some people who have access to him. But it will be confined to that small circle of friends…” (The Rocket, Vol.24/2, 1991)
Most of the big privatization projects in recent years, including the North-South Highway, were not awarded based on open tender. Thus PLUS, the concessionaire of the North-South Highway linked to UEM, holds the concession for 30 years, up until 2018. Between 1989 and 1995, PLUS had collected toll totaling RM1.8 billion. With traffic flow 33 per cent higher than initially forecast, toll revenue was expected to hit RM1 billion a year by 1998. Considering the original cost quoted by PLUS was only RM3.42 billion, the amount of toll revenue it will collect until 2018 is staggering.
Apart from the windfall gains of these private monopolies, they further enjoy subsidies provided by the Malaysian taxpayers through soft loans instead of relying on their own financing:
Cronyism in award of contracts
Another symptom of the problems plaguing Malaysia’s transport system is cronyism and corruption which have characterized BN administration. Billions of taxpayers’ money has been lost because suitable specialists have not been put in charge of these highly technical fields. The electrification and signaling contract at KTMB was just one of these examples.
Through the years, the writer is aware that fully-integrated transport plans incorporating the bus service have been submitted to the relevant authorities by contractors to solve the urban traffic problem but these have been sidelined. As Tengku Razaleigh had alleged in 1991, the contracts have invariably been given to “favoured contractors” based on negotiated tender. In the case of the LRT, the contract was delayed by up to seven years, adding more cost to be borne by consumers.
Non-accountable local government
The non-accountable (non-elected) local councils must share the responsibility for the city centre traffic mess in Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and other cities in the country. Local authorities have not only failed to plan ahead, they have exacerbated the problem by ignoring guidelines for environmental protection and even gone against City Structure Plans they themselves have drawn up. The recent controversies over highway and property development projects in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya are symptomatic of this ‘profits before people’ syndrome.
Will there be reforms in our lifetime?
The latest World Bank Report warns that Kuala Lumpur still has enough time to avoid the worst impacts of a growing urban environment and rapid adoption of cars, but only “if adequate reforms are implemented soon”.
So which political coalition can provide an efficient, affordable and sustainable public transport system in Malaysia and how can long-suffering Malaysian consumers be empowered in the process?
- Important public services such as a public transport system need state support, regulation and intervention to operate efficiently and fairly;
- Malaysian workers’ pension fund (EPF) should not be allowed to be used by businessmen who have failed to obtain financing from banks;
- Devolve power to regional transport authorities and integrate all rail, bus and transit systems;
- Local government must be elected by the people to ensure accountability and efficiency in the provision of public transport services, environmental protection and regulation of city traffic.
The Malaysian public is tired of being told to be patient and that we can get our jam tomorrow… We want our jam today!
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An earlier version of this Op-Ed was published in Free Malaysia Today on 22 July 2015. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. For the full original consult http://goo.gl/QRUFWz. The reader will also find comments at the end of the original article.
About the author:
Prolific author, activist, educationist and ex-politician, the former DAP Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya (1990-1995) believes that everyone in this country deserves equal rights. He continues to take an active role in promoting human rights through Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), of which he is a director.
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About Sustainable Penang: A Civil Society Watching Brief
Sustainable Penang offers a different approach to bringing civil society into a key position in the push to sustainable transport, sustainable cities and sustainable lives. The goal of this Watching Brief and associated social media sites is to support legitimate sustainable transport initiatives, critical thinking, open discussions, new ideas, consistent policy, fruitful alliances and fact-oriented discussion and anything else that might help advance the public’s understanding of the New Mobility Agenda in Penang. The watching brief also keeps a weather eye open to identify, feed and encourage public discussion of what are possibly bad ideas, proposals and ad hoc initiatives which violate the basic precepts of the sustainability agenda.
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About the editor:
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France
Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton