Efficient public transport pie in the sky

Josh Hong

The government must provide a well-planned public transport system that can meet the basic needs of different groups of users instead of promoting development around a carbon-intensive, fossil fuel-consuming and environmentally disastrous car and construction industries. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, January 31, 2023.

WHEN one talks about social justice, objectives such as poverty eradication, equal education opportunities and universal healthcare come to mind.

What is less discussed is accessibility to efficient and affordable public transport which can reduce the financial burden of low-income groups.

This is especially true in the case of Malaysia, where the general public barely understands what justice means in public transport planning and hence can hardly tell the powers-that-be what to do for the  development of a comprehensive public transport system.

After all, Malaysians have for decades associated the ability to own a car with fulfilment or even achievement in life, no thanks to successive government policies that place great emphasis on protecting the half-national car industry and highway construction.

According to the Statistics Department, Malaysia’s urbanisation rate tripled from 28.4% in 1970 to 75.1% in 2020 due to population growth, migration and demarcation.

Now that the country is one of the most urbanised in Southeast Asia, it is imperative that the government gets serious about putting in place a well-planned public transport system that can meet the basic needs of different groups of users instead of promoting development around a carbon-intensive, fossil fuel-consuming and environmentally disastrous car and construction industries.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogota, once famously said that “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, but where the rich use public transport”.

It is the other way round in Malaysia, where public transport is a luxury and car ownership a necessity because of the poor commuting options.

From Kota Baru, George Town, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru on the peninsula to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia, the public transport system has failed to serve commuters. Long wait times, poor connectivity and unreliable services have forced many low-income Malaysians, including fresh graduates, to fork out huge sums of money for their own car, which comes with expenses for toll and petrol.

Being financially burdened as a result of government policy failure is a social injustice, plain and simple.

When both South Korea and Taiwan spent billions of dollars on electrifying their train lines and later developing high-speed rails in the 1990s and early 2000s, Malaysia did the opposite and focused almost solely on the car industry and highway construction, so that the rail services are now badly maintained and plagued by safety problems.

With increasing urbanisation come congested highways and air pollution.

While more and more people in China now travel to and fro the cities and villages with ease thanks to a highly efficient and reliable passenger rail system, as seen in the so-called Spring Festival rush in the past two weeks, many Malaysians were caught in massive traffic jams that lasted for hours during the Chinese New Year.

It is the same during Hari Raya every year, when millions of Muslims make the balik kampung trip by car back to their hometowns.

The good news is that the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), once completed in 2026, will allow travellers to avoid the traffic snarls on the Karak Highway, East Coast Expressway and Central Spine Road.

Seen in this light, the decision by the Muhyiddin government in 2020 to reroute the ECRL through Bentong and Gombak, where it will connect to the LRT station, is a sound and rational one, as it will meet the original objective of serving the large number of East Coast folk working in the capital city, compared to the previous route through Jelebu in Negri Sembilan and Putrajaya as proposed by the Dr Mahathir administration in 2019.

But the KL-Singapore High-Speed Rail, which could also relieve congestion on the North-South Expressway, has been cancelled with no resumption plan in sight.

The soon-to-be-operational Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Rail will replace the KLIA Express as the fastest train in Southeast Asia in the later part of 2023.

It is true that high-speed rail infrastructure is becoming more expensive, and we do not need to have one.

But we should at least have a functioning, affordable, and reliable public transport system of buses and trains within and between cities so that the average Malaysians is afforded an alternative to driving.

Unfortunately, that appears to be pie in the sky even with the “new government” in charge. – January 30, 2023.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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