Skip to main content



Failed KL-Singapore High-Speed Rail project offers a chance to reimagine second CBD in Jurong: Analysts

SINGAPORE — Plans to build the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) might have been scuppered, but analysts say there is a silver lining as it presents an opportunity to reexamine the masterplan for Jurong in light of the new normal brought about by Covid-19.

An aerial view of the old Jurong Country Club which was meant to serve as the HSR terminus in Singapore.

An aerial view of the old Jurong Country Club which was meant to serve as the HSR terminus in Singapore.

  • With the closing of the HSR chapter, analysts find it timely to reexamine plans to build a second CBD at Jurong Lake District
  • One analyst called the idea “passe” in the new normal and suggested setting aside land to position Singapore for the post-Covid-19, climate-changing world
  • Political analysts said the termination of the HSR project had less to do with the state of bilateral ties or cooperation than with Malaysia’s domestic politics


SINGAPORE — Plans to build the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) might have been scuppered, but analysts say there is a silver lining as it presents an opportunity to reexamine the masterplan for Jurong in light of the new normal brought about by Covid-19.

Among them was Mr Alan Cheong, executive director of research and consultancy at real estate service provider Savills, who said the concept to build a second central business district (CBD) there might be “passe” with telecommuting likely becoming part of the national work culture.

Without the HSR — originally planned to be operational by 2026 and then postponed until 2031 — the Government can now afford some time to review plans rather than “rush headlong” into executing them as the country emerges from the pandemic, he pointed out. 

Singapore could, for instance, set aside some land for high-tech farming if it wishes to position itself better for a post-Covid-19, climate-changing world, he added. 

But even as this may signal a redrawing of plans, Mr Cheong said it would not have a significant impact on property prices in the area, as the market has had more than two years to digest the possibility of the HSR falling through. 

Its fate had long been thrown into question when Malaysia elected a new government in 2018 to replace the Najib Razak administration that signed the HSR agreement with Singapore in 2016.

Shortly after coming into power in May 2018, then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said that Malaysia wanted to cancel the project as part of measures to reduce his country’s national debt.

He later said the project would be postponed instead, and in September 2018, both countries agreed to defer it until May 31 in 2020, before the postponement was extended to Dec 31, 2020.

On Friday (Jan 1), the two countries said that the HSR bilateral agreement has been terminated after both sides failed to reach an agreement on changes proposed by Malaysia by the deadline of Dec 31.

The HSR terminus was originally planned to sit at the heart of the 360ha Jurong Lake District, which will host the second CBD, and the Government had acquired the former sites of Jurong Country Club and Raffles Country Club to make way for the HSR’s facilities.

When asked in 2018 how the sites around the planned district will be affected if the HSR falls through, then-National Development Minister Lawrence Wong had said in Parliament that transformation plans for the area will proceed, though some details may need to be adjusted along the way, as circumstances change.

The plans include developing a commercial precinct, building up to 20,000 new homes, and setting up a major transport hub connecting existing and upcoming MRT lines, he added.


Mr Nicholas Mak, head of the research and consultancy department at real estate firm ERA Realty, believes that the Government will keep land set aside for the HSR vacant for at least the first two years until the “dust settles”. 

This is partly because developments across the border could warrant a revisit of the HSR idea, he said.

He also echoed Mr Cheong in saying that there is no immediate pressure to build new office space in Jurong as there is no need to decentralise the existing CBD, since most offices are still keeping their work-from-home arrangements while Covid-19 remains a threat.

Besides, there is enough slack in the office market to absorb any increase in demand for office spaces in the year ahead, he said, adding that there is no point in rushing development because of bottlenecks in the construction industry, also caused by Singapore’s Covid-19 situation among migrant workers.

Mr Mak noted that it is not unusual for the Government to leave the acquired land unused for more than a decade, citing the example of the relocation of farmers in Punggol in the 1980s, long before its land was used for housing in the 2000s.

Mr Chris Koh, director and key executive officer of real estate consultancy Chris International, said that while land had been set aside for the HSR, it can be further rezoned and put to other future uses.

“The plans for the Jurong Lake District will still continue even without the HSR. Such plans aim to make Jurong a more vibrant town,” he said. “Eventually, Jurong will become a nicer place to work, play and live in Singapore.”


Still, observers said that Friday’s announcement was “unfortunate” as they regarded the project as a game-changer for its ability to cut travel time between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to 90 minutes.

Dr Chua Hak Bin, a senior economist at Maybank Kim Eng, called the termination a “big disappointment and setback for greater regional integration”.

The HSR would have created new opportunities and growth areas for both sides, with Singapore being able to tap a larger hinterland and talent pool, and Malaysia benefiting from the creation of higher-paying cross-border jobs for its skilled workers, he said.

This could have translated to “some convergence of wages” between Singapore and Malaysia, raising the standard of living for both countries, especially for Malaysia, he added.

Dr Walter Theseira, an associate professor of economics at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said the HSR would have provided a “superior” transport link between the two cities as it would likely be a more reliable and environmentally friendly option than the present air links.

“With the HSR, what we are trying to achieve is really set up this broader economic agglomeration or entity, which would have been Singapore and Kuala Lumpur,” he said.

“The time of travel would have been short and reliable enough that firms could have been able to contemplate integrating their Singapore and Kuala Lumpur operations to a much greater degree than it is currently possible today.”

He added: “There would have been much better prospects of firms in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur doing projects, businesses offering services in the other city. Much greater economic integration and cooperation would have been possible among workers, firms and investors.”

With the project falling through, he said he does not expect any dramatic changes to plans drawn out for the Jurong Lake District, including the building of the Cross Island Line or Jurong Region Line, although he noted that the HSR would have been a nice boost and bonus for the region. 

“Life goes on, and that’s the important thing,” said Dr Theseira. “From the start, there was always some possibility that the deal would fall through because they were subject to political and economic risks.”


Political analysts said that the termination of the HSR project had less to do with the state of bilateral ties or cooperation than with Malaysia’s domestic politics.

The going ahead of the smaller-scale Singapore-Johor Baru Rapid Transit System, meant to be completed in 2024 connecting Bukit Chagar in Johor Baru to Woodlands in Singapore, affirms this view, they said.

Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, said the termination of the project is not surprising given two changes of government in Malaysia since 2018.

He said the current prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been preoccupied with staying in power as pressure had been mounting since March for him to call an early election.

“After a year of Covid-19 and trying to restart the economy, the (Malaysian) government probably felt that this project was too closely tied to the old government, and so some of the people involved in this new government are probably looking for something else,” he said.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng, executive director of the Penang Institute, said the HSR’s original plans were affected by diverse political interests in Malaysia from the start, and were not conceived purely from a national economic point of view. 

Said Dr Ooi: “Muhyiddin's government is an extremely weak one, susceptible to pressure from various angles and therefore unable to manoeuvre its way towards a continuation of the project. 

“Whether there was any political will to do so at all has been unclear. The government has been trying to stay alive since it took power in early 2020, and the HSR would not have been among its priorities.”

He also voiced doubts that the Malaysian government’s considerations were about long-term economic gains or losses. 

“To start with, though, economic gains to the national economy from an HSR along the peninsula would have been greater if the project sought to connect Johor and Singapore to the Thai border, serving all major economic hubs along the way,” he added. 

“The short version from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore lacked nation-building ambitions and was more a mega-project geared towards serving certain personal and political interests.”

Dr Norshahril Saat, senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, believes that economic nationalism was not a factor at play as both countries should be aware that they cannot be closed economically. 

“I don’t think it is sustainable to behave as if we are competing with one another,” he added.

Associate professor of law Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University sees it as a case of “internal domestic concerns” as well, pointing out that the Muhyiddin government could be finding it difficult to muster sufficient internal consensus and support.

“Any Mentri Besar (chief minister) or state government would want to try to have as many stops as possible within their state, (but) if there are more stops, then it is not a high-speed rail anymore,” he said.

If this was the case, Assoc Prof Tan said the project would likely be further delayed, as it is likely to get sucked more into domestic political realities.

“They may have aligned stretches across, but whether they will be of the same standard, quality and speed remains to be seen. (If they give in to more stops), it then raises the question of why not use the KTM instead? Why build a parallel line?”

Related topics

HSR Malaysia Jurong Lake District CBD

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.