Sunday, May 02, 2010

Malaysia's counterproductive policies towards its rail fares from Singapore.

Once Singapore and Malaysia were part of the same federation, but in 1965, Malaysia forced Singapore to become independent. According to Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, differing attitudes towards the politics of communalism led to the split. The leaders of Malaysia’s dominant political party (then and now), the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), sought to institutionalize a political order in which the Malay race would be dominant.

They have done so. With Singapore and its large Chinese majority as part of the federation, this was threatened. But this posting is not about Singapore’s independence or the UNMO’s communal policies. It is about rail fares.

When Singapore gained independence, Malaysia’s currency, the Ringgit, and Singapore’s dollar were convertible at the rate of one to one. However Singapore has been more successful in maintaining fiscal discipline. The value of the Ringgit has gradually depreciated, though for a developing nation it has been relatively stable. Now the exchange rate is 100 Ringgits to 42.80 Singapore dollars.

... Except within the confines of - to quote an internet travel guide - “the faded colonial grandeur of Singapore’s art deco mainline station.” There, the exchange rate is still one to one. As part of the separation agreement, the station and rail service are still operated by the Malaysian National Railway. If one buys a first class ticket to Kuala Lumpur at the station, or over the internet from Singapore, the cost is S$68.00, instead of less than $30.00. To buy a ticket denominated in Ringit or at international exchange rates, one must travel by Singapore Metropolitan Rapid Transit and bus across the causeway to Johor Bahru.

This policy might make sense if the Malaysian National Railway had a monopoly on travel to Kuala Lumpur, but it does not. While there are only three trains each day, there are frequent flights and hourly bus departures - including luxury busses - throughout the day and evening. By bus, travel times are shorter and fares are lower though the trip is less picturesque. While I don’t know for sure, I must assume that keeping the station open for only three relatively uncrowded trains each day, must be a money losing operation. My 11 mile evening bicycle trip from the Lee Kuan Yew School to the National University of Singapore’s Kent Vale housing complex where I live parallels the single rail track for a short stretch of about two miles. It is a tranquil, lonely scene. There is not even a protective fence. There doesn’t need to be. With a more rational policy and better service there could be a vibrant, profitable high-speed rail link between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and other points north. Were the Singapore government managing the operation, one may be sure there would be.

I love everything about train travel, even on Sri Lankan trains, which are maintained at a far lower standard than Malaysia’s. Once, I made a special trip to Singapore, partly to experience Singapore Airlines but also to travel by train to Kuala Lumpur. Years ago, I had seen the Singapore rail station and it captivated my imagination. I loved the trip, even though the air conditioning in my car failed and by the end of the trip, it was stiflingly hot.

In three weeks time I will be traveling to Kuala Lumpur. Probably I should take the train, inflated ticket price and all. I could view it as accumulating good karma by making a charitable contribution to Malaysia’ government and to keep the rail service functioning. But despite my love of rail travel, I cannot bring myself to cast a “vote” for a policy that seems so irrational and economically counterproductive. My rail experience from KL to Singapore will only be one way. Traveling north, I’ll take the bus.

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