Earlier this week, Malaysia scrapped the KL-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project, with prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad saying so in a foreign media interview. The unilateral decision was made without the knowledge of the cabinet, as hinted at by transport minister Anthony Loke, and also caught joint venture partner Singapore by surprise.

The PM has since elaborated on the HSR issue after a cabinet meeting this morning, explaining that the country cannot afford mega projects that aren’t beneficial. “If the country is to avoid bankruptcy, we must learn how to manage our big debts and one of the ways is to do away with projects that are not beneficial to us,” he said.

According to Channel NewsAsia, Mahathir said the government decided to cancel HSR, considering its high financial implications, subject to discussion with the Singapore government. Asked if Malaysia would reconsider its decision if its southern neighbour could prove that the project would benefit Malaysia, he said: “We will listen to them. They are our good partner.”

In a separate CNA interview with Loke, the transport minister said that Malaysia could revisit the HSR project when its financial position is better.

“As the prime minister has said this morning, the cancellation of the HSR is subject to negotiation and discussions with the Singapore government. But of course, why we cancelled the project is because of affordability. The priority of the government is to pay our debts and the ability to repay our debts, that is our main priority, that’s why some of these projects must be shelved.

“But of course, it’s subject to review. I mean if we are in a better position later on. But as of now, the decision has been made to cancel the project. But a lot of discussions and negotiations have to be made with the Singapore government,” he said.

On benefits versus affordability, he said: “I think the questions of benefits and so on is polemic. Of course there are different interpretations, different opinions and so on. Of course any infrastructure project, you can’t say there’s no benefit at all but I think the question now is affordability.

“The priority of the new government is to clean up the mess of the previous government. And the number one priority is to make sure our finances are back to healthy, back to a healthy stage and our ability to pay government loans and debts is our number one priority. We do not want to add on to debts and the pressure on the government,” he added.

Signed in December 2016, the HSR was planned as a 350 km-long double-track route (335 km of which was supposed to be in Malaysia, and 15 km in Singapore) with eight stops in total – Singapore, Iskandar Puteri, Batu Pahat, Muar, Ayer Keroh, Seremban, Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur. The trains were projected to run at average speeds of 300 km/h and bring down the rail travel time between KL and Singapore to 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, Loke revealed that the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) will proceed, although Malaysia is looking at lowering the project’s costs.

“The RTS will proceed. Of course we have to restudy the project in terms of cost and so on. But as a principled decision, the RTS is still on the table. I was made to understand that the cost of the project is RM4 billion for the Malaysian government, but of course we are looking at how to reduce cost. We have just made the decision, we have to initiate negotiations and discussions with our counterparts in Singapore,” he said.

Agreed and signed upon in January this year, the four-kilometre cross-border MRT system will run from Bukit Chagar in Johor to the Woodlands North station in Singapore. It will be able to ferry up to 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction, and is scheduled for completion by 2024, replacing today’s KTM Link.