The East Coast Rail Link project will cost the nation at least at RM55 billion. File pic by SYAMSI SUHAIMI

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is haggling over the terms of a $14 billion rail deal with its Chinese partners and can reduce its ballooning national debts by $50 billion by doing away with mega projects, its prime minister said in an interview published on Saturday.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who triumphed in the recent elections, has made it a priority to cut the national debt and pledged to review major projects agreed by the previous government.

Work on the RM55 billion (US$13.82 billion) East Coast Rail Link - the largest such project in the country and a major part of Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure push - started last year.

The project was planned to stretch 688 kilometres (430 miles) connecting the South China Sea at the Thai border in the east with the strategic shipping routes of the Straits of Melaka in the west.

"We are renegotiating the terms," Mahathir told the financial newspaper The Edge. "The terms are very damaging to our economy."

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad questions the need for the East Coast Rail Link project, adding that the terms are very damaging to Malaysia’s economy. Bernama pic.

The project is being built by China Communications Construction Co Ltd, and is being mainly financed by a loan from China Exim Bank.

Dr Mahathir also questioned the need for the project in the first place.

"He (former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak) knew very well that the ECRL, for example, is not something we could afford.

"It is not going to serve any purpose, it is not going to give us any returns," said Mahathir.

Addressing the need to reduce the national debt and liabilities - which the government puts at around RM1 trillion (US$251.32 billion) or 80 per cent of its GDP - Mahathir said "at one go, we can reduce it by RM200 billion (US$50.26 billion) by doing away with all these huge projects".

He said Malaysia is also going to look into how it can reduce the cost of any potential exit from a deal with Singapore for a high-speed rail (HSR) to link its capital Kuala Lumpur with the city-state.

The project, valued by analysts at about US$17 billion, is currently out for tender and is scheduled to be completed by 2026.

"The terms of the agreement (for the HSR) are such that if we decide to drop the project, it will cost us a lot of money," said Mahathir.

"So we are going to find out how we can reduce the amount of money we have to pay for breaking the agreement."--REUTERS