Sunday March 3, 2013
High-speed brain drain?
By DZOF AZMI
Will the proposed high-speed rail connection between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore make more expatriates of Malaysians?
I travelled to Singapore last weekend, and for the first time tried driving there from Kuala Lumpur. Let me tell you, it was an exhausting drive. Although it’s possible to complete the journey in three hours flat if you’re willing to ignore speed limits and legal passing lanes, my style is to meander down the highway, making occasional food stops. Fun, but still tiring at the end of it all.
It was the same weekend that the news of the new rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore emerged, promising a journey of 90 minutes between the two cities. If the train had existed now, my journey would have been vastly different. I would have arrived refreshed, rather than tired.
Well-known HSR networks around the world include the Japanese Shinkansen, the French TGV and, most recently, China’s HSR network comprising more than 9,000km of track – the largest in the world – which they are planning to extend to 20,000km.
Malaysia’s proposed link for 400km looks modest in comparison, but the price tag is anything but. The estimated outlay of between RM8bil-RM14bil means a cost of at least RM20mil per kilometre of track. Certainly, we hope the benefits are worth it.
At least both the Malaysian and Singaporean governments think so, and as a friend of mine working in Singapore said, “The government here doesn’t do anything unless they are sure it’s advantageous for them”.
The most obvious potential benefit is economic development, especially in the areas around the train stations. The World Bank published a recent paper that said “the wider economic development benefits of high-speed rail projects are significant and are worth considering in the evaluation of such programs” (www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/01/21/evaluation-of-high-speed-rail-program-should-consider-wider-economic-benefits).
It’s similar to what the North-South expressway did for Negri Sembilan. Before the highway, it was inconceivable that anybody living in Seremban would commute to work in Kuala Lumpur. Now that the drive only takes an hour, and many in Seremban earn their living in KL.
If we extend this example to a link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, the question must be asked: Who stands to benefit more?
And more importantly, will be at the expense of one of the other?
While many living in Seremban would take the highway to work in KL, the reverse is unlikely. In fact, Seremban would lose its best talents to KL.
Of course, I must sound paranoid suggesting this, but look at the facts: the bridge between Johor and Singapore goes both ways, but far more people in Johor work in Singapore than the other way around.
The World Bank estimates that up to a million Malaysians work in Singapore at the moment and in a 2011 report said that up to 580,000 Malaysians may be working but not residing there. (documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2011/04/14134061/malaysia-economic-monitor-brain-drain). If the High Speed Rail does make it easy for people to travel to Singapore, we’re looking at the possibility that people from further afield may consider becoming expatriates.
I must admit, when I talked to people who live in Singapore they were convinced that the HSR would increase the number of people from Singapore going to KL. “We don’t often go to KL for a holiday,” they said.
How realistic is it that the HSR would actually cause people in KL to work in Singapore? Cost is one factor.
Estimates I saw put ticket prices between RM200 and RM300 per trip, which would take a big bite out of most people’s salaries if they were commuting to work. Yet, there is likely to be considerable pressure to keep ticket prices low.
There may also be a rise in weekly commuters, who stay in Singapore through the week, but come back home for the weekends. A number of KL-ites who work in Iskandar Johor do something similar already, as with Penangnites in KL.
What might also happen is that regional headquarters in Singapore could establish KL offices to take advantage of lower salaries in the Klang Valley. Although this is frequently pointed out as a benefit of KL, there is also the likelihood that high-performing individuals in these satellite offices may get promoted to work in the main office in Singapore.
So it seems very likely that there is a possibility that more people from KL would actually start working in Singapore. In effect, the Malaysian government may be footing the bill for a scheme that exacerbates the “brain drain” situation.
I know I’m painting a negative picture, but as the saying goes, with every problem comes opportunities. We must look at it expanding the potential market of service sectors in KL. My experience is that Singaporean clients are more demanding, but are willing to pay for good service – and anything that drives Malaysian companies to perform better is a good thing.
At the end of the day, it’s about who takes most advantage of the opportunity given to them.
Singapore has a proven track record at being able to execute a plan. All the same, we have enough good minds here to make sure that they’re not the only ones who stand to benefit.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at email@example.com.