IT seems apparent that last year was the year when Malaysians felt and experienced a great transformation in our public transport system.
It was the year that showcased pledges and plans to be implemented well and to become a reality.
And, of course, there are more plans ahead as far as public transport is concerned as Malaysia takes a step closer to becoming a high-income and developed nation by 2020.
There is little doubt that Malaysia will achieve high-income status, defined by the World Bank in 2015 as a country achieving gross national income (GNI) per capita of US$12,475 (RM54,849), a few years from now.
Malaysia’s GNI per capita in 2015 stood at US$10,570 and clearly, we are just 15 per cent away to arriving at that level. In a climate of uncertainty and with the high level of volatility in the global economy today, achieving this target is no easy task.
But thanks to the New Economic Model (NEM) and the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) unveiled in 2010, the nation is not just on track to becoming a high-income country, they also shield Malaysia from plunging into a possible recession any time soon.
Even Singapore’s economy is now on the verge of recession, where it experienced contraction in the third quarter of last year.
But what is the real meaning of a high-income nation for the rakyat?
That is a valid question. Surely, being a high-income and developed nation is not just about attaining the GNI per capita number alone. The people must feel the benefits.
One important dimension of being a high-income country is having a good public transport system. This is true both in theory and practice.
Hence, it is no surprise that when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak rolled out his National Transportation Programme (NTP) in 2010, reforming public transport became one of the main focuses.
It is reflected as part of the seven National Key Results Areas (NKRAs) under the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and one of the twelve National Key Economic Areas (NKEAs) under the ETP.
Furthermore, it is also part of the six strategic thrusts and game changers under the 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP).
The launching of the first phase of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) Line recently is a genuine testimony that the present government is serious about transforming the nation.
“No country can be recognised as a developed nation without an efficient and modern public transport network,” Najib said during the launch of the MRT line.
It is worth highlighting here that the MRT project was not just completed on time, but also well within the estimated budget.
In fact, it managed to save a whopping RM2 billion as a result of efficient project implementation.
Indeed, this is what Malaysians want; to reduce wastage and leakages in implementing public projects. This, I believe, is a result of a new mechanism put in place in the form of a “bidding process”, which is more transparent and thorough.
In other words, there is no longer such thing as automatic approval. Not only do companies have to convince the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) that the economic returns must far outweigh the cost, but the project must also go through what is called a “creative index and strategy canvas (CISV)”.
And, according to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, who is in charge of the EPU, this new mechanism will ensure that huge public projects can be justified to the people as they would fulfil the four pillars of CISV — eliminate, reduce, raise and create.
This is, to me, the National Ocean Strategy (NBOS) in action.
And more importantly, this new norm for government projects will build trust in the government and address the issue of corruption (perceived or otherwise) in Malaysia in the long term.
Economics 101 tells us that infrastructure projects will create enormous multiplier effects to the economy.
But reality also tells us that with poor implementation, these mega projects will be a source of economic inefficacy in the form of corruption and high cost through rent-seeking and patronage, which eventually enlarge the debt and deficit levels of public finances.
Hence, effective and efficient implementation is key, and the MRT project should be the prime example in moving forward.
After all, there are a plenty of infrastructural projects in the pipeline and still ongoing: phase two and three of the Light Rail Transit (LRT), the Pan-Borneo Highway, the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR), the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system in Sabah.
During the opening of the Batang Sadong Bridge and the last eight packages of the first phase of the Pan-Borneo Highway in Sarawak recently, the prime minister hinted that a coastal highway in Sarawak is now in the pipeline.
And during the signing of the bilateral HSR deal last month, the prime minister announced the building of a high bridge over the Johor Straits under the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS).
Clearly, infrastructural developments will be the way forward for Malaysia. These infrastructure investments are not just about high growth; it is also about both sustainability and inclusiveness. This is a vision of a people-centric agenda; a manifestation of 1Malaysia’s people first, performance now.
The writer, Dr Irwan Shah Zainal Abidin is director of Asian Research Institute of Banking & Finance (Ariebf), Universiti Utara Malaysia. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org