Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's and Prime Minister Najib Razak's Remarks at the Joint Press Conference for the 6th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat on 5 May 2015

5 May 2015

 

PM Lee: Good afternoon Prime Minister Najib, ladies and gentlemen and ladies and gentlemen from the media. 

We have had a good series of meetings this morning. It is our annual retreat. It allows us to take stock of our existing cooperation and to explore new areas to work together. Our bilateral ties are good. We are working well together. Our M + S projects in Singapore as well as in Iskandar Malaysia are progressing and have got good market response and I am confident that our friendship and cooperation will continue. In fact we have been helping each other quietly in times of need for example most recently, with the war in Yemen, Malaysia helped us to bring some Singaporeans who were there back home. And after the earthquake in Nepal, Singapore also assisted in bringing some Malaysians home from Kathmandu.

We discussed a range of cooperation projects this morning. The most important of which is of course the High-Speed Rail (HSR) project and I told Prime Minister Najib that we have decided in Singapore that the terminus for the HSR in Singapore will be located at Jurong East – in the Jurong Lake District which is a regional hub and which is going to be our second Central Business District. The terminus there will change the face of Jurong and create opportunities for our citizens and businesses and draw the people of Singapore and Malaysia closer together and connect our businesses with opportunities. This is a game changer. You can go up to Kuala Lumpur in a day, have lunch and return to Singapore or you can come down to Singapore for a day, do business because our hawker food is not quite so good and go back to Kuala Lumpur again. It is a very ambitious project. It is a challenging one to carry out. There are many complicated parts to structure properly and to implement well so we looked at the timeline and the original timeline of 2020, we think is not really a realistic one. We have to take a bit more time to do it well, but to do it without delay so we will be tasking our officials to relook at the timetable while we work out the agreement between Singapore and Malaysia on how to structure the project. We hope to have the agreement between the two sides done by the end of the year and when the agreement is settled, we will also be able to announce an updated timeline as to when the trains will start running. 

Apart from HSR, we also took stock of how we are improving our connectivity, and we discussed ways in which we are improving our CIQ facilities and increasing its capacity of the throughput. On the Singapore side we are implementing biometrics, we are having automated self-clearance lanes and we are having more car counters during peak periods and I think the Malaysians are enhancing their facilities as well, and this both a matter of efficiency but also a matter of security and rigour because we cannot afford to have people cross the border without having been properly checked, screened and made sure that they are safe and do not pose as a security or immigration risk.

Other issues we discussed included cooperation on water. I thank Prime Minister Najib for the good cooperation which the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and BAKAJ, which is the Johor water regulating body, have enjoyed. I thank him for the Federal Government’s support of the Johor River Barrage project which is a project to build a barrage on the Johor River so as to keep out salt water intrusions during dry seasons and allow Singapore and Johor to draw the full capacity of the river even during dry seasons. There are some delays to the barrage project because of the wet weather but we are trying to catch up and Singapore will give full cooperation to BAKAJ for BAKAJ to complete the work in good time. However as Johor develops, the demand for water from the Johor River will grow and there is also the fact of global warming which is making our weather less predictable, more extreme weather which means wet seasons but also long, dry spells. This will affect the reliable yield of the Johor River and affect the 250 million gallons per day that the PUB is entitled to draw from the Johor river. The river barrage will increase the yield of the river, but we will need to work closely together to develop more schemes to ensure a reliable supply and this is something which the two sides will talk about. 

So I’d like to thank PM Najib for a good retreat, there are other issues too which we talked about but those are things which the officials can follow up and which are all also in the joint statement which we have released. I look forward to visiting Malaysia in November for the ASEAN Summit and to going to Malaysia again next year when it is Malaysia’s turn to host the retreat. Thank you for being a very good guest this time. 

PM Najib: Thank you. A very good afternoon. 

Prime Minister Lee and I had a very fruitful discussion, moving forward the very close and vibrant partnership between Malaysia and Singapore. We believe that the High-Speed Rail project certainly is probably the most important project that, as Prime Minister Lee said, a game changer. We believe this would be a very, very significant project and has gathered a lot of global interest. I concur with what Prime Minister Lee said, our original deadline as we mentioned, was 2020, but realistically speaking, this project is a very complex project, there are many dimensions to it and has to be studied very carefully but expeditiously at the same time. The construction of the high speed rail would take approximately five years, the design would take one year and the tender process probably would take another year. So we both decided that bilateral issues pertaining to this High Speed rail project will be settled by the end of the year between our two governments. Once the issues have been settled, including the structure of the project, management of the project, the business model, government participation and so forth, we will then announce a new deadline for this project. Hopefully by the end of the year, we will be in the position to do so. 

I also welcome Prime Minister Lee’s commitment that we enhance connectivity between our two countries. Congestions at the Causeway is something that we both agree, needs to be attended to, by our two countries. So we will task the relevant ministers to look at the ways and means in which we can facilitate the movement of people and goods between our two countries, bearing in mind of course the importance of security. Security cannot be compromised and whatever new and improved system to manage the inflow and outflow of visitors between our two countries must not be at expense of security. Nonetheless, we believe we need to put into place new measures and we hope that we will be able to look into the details and make the necessary improvements in due course. We also took note of the implementation of some of the projects that we have already agreed between our two sides, the M+S development projects in Marina South and Ophir Rochor going on very well and have secured very good support from the market. The iconic project, Afiniti Medini and Avira, especially the wellness centre is proceeding and should be ready by the end of this year. The Rapid Transit System (RTS) is something which we will look at the various options and we hope we will be able to move into phase two, looking at some of the technical and financial options so that we can implement the RTS system. 

All in all, I am very pleased with the state of cooperation between our two countries. Malaysia and Singapore trade is on upward trend, Malaysia was Singapore’s second largest trading partner in 2014, total trade was in the region of almost USD 60 billion. Singapore was also the second largest source of foreign investments in 2014 with total investments in the region of about USD 2.23 billion. So all the fundamentals are strong between our two countries, and we thank Prime Minister Lee for his warm hospitality and of course I convey once again on behalf of the Government and people of Malaysia, our deepest sympathies to Prime Minister Lee and the people of Singapore on the recent passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Lee at the next annual retreat, we have not decided where, but we will make it exciting. 

Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat Press Conference on 5 May 2015 (MCI Photo by Terence Tan)

Q:  Good afternoon Prime Ministers.  Your joint statement today said that the initial target of 2020 for the High Speed Rail looks for reassessment due to complexities and scale of the project. Could you enlighten us on the scale and complexities the project?

PM Lee: It is a very big project.  You are talking about complete, new line.  From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, it is about 350 kilometres.  There are many engineering details that have to been worked out – how is the line going to be designed.  There are many operational details to be worked out – who is going to operate the company, how are the companies going to be structured, whether is it one company, multiple companies, is it one side, two sides.  There are also financial issues which has to be worked out, which means, where is the funding going to come from –  debt, equity, government; how is it going to be divided between the two parties. There is also structuring issues to be worked out. For example, do we have Singapore build our part and Malaysia build your part and we join together in the middle, or do we have one company build both sides.  Do we have the same company operating the trains and owning the trains, or we have a company owning the trains and then somebody else operating them. What happens to the tracks, how does that interface? What are the control arrangements – where will the trains be controlled, what are the arrangements in case of contingencies?  There are solutions to all these problems, because there are other such train projects which cross borders, and which involve more than one government. Channel train from London to Paris.  There are many other trains in Europe which cross borders.  China to Hong Kong, there is a high speed train going to come.  So there are precedence, but there are issues that we have to work through and resolve.  We have to discuss and apply our minds and decide what is best for our circumstances.  This takes some time, we are working hard at it.  Papers have to be written, consensus reached, after considering all the relevant factors to make sure that the project runs well.  I don’t see them as insoluble problems; we are getting there, we just need more time to work everything out.

Q: PM, could you perhaps elaborate on why Jurong East was chosen, as opposed to the other options you spoke of last year.  And also this decision to reassess the deadline.  How difficult a decision was it to take among the two leaders given that a lot of people are obviously very excited about the project and really fixated on the 2020 deadline, really hoping that it would come through.

PM Lee: Well, we are hoping it will come through too and we are confident it will come through.  It is just a matter of couple of years, earlier or later, what is the feasible, ambitious target which we should set for ourselves.  

Why is it Jurong East? Last year I said there were three possibilities, Jurong East was one of them, Tuas was the second one, and city centre was the third one.  From the trains’ point of view, of course to be in the city centre is the best. Then you go from city centre to city centre, and you arrive at the place you want to be.  But from the point of view of cost, as well as engineering feasibility, it is the hardest.  Because to bring a train all the way from Tuas into the city centre, aboveground, there is not a lot of space left. Underground, frankly there is also not a lot of space left.  Because underground in Singapore, everywhere you dig, you either find a cable or tunnel or a pipe or somebody is going to put one there.  So it is very difficult.  To put it in Tuas, it is easiest, but it is quite far away from city centre and it is not a centre of activity and business as such.  It is an industrial area – factories there, refineries, shipyards, but there is no business.  

In Jurong East, you have business, you have population, you have a regional centre, which is already developing, and this will add to the regional centre, because it will make it a very attractive place, and people can come in, and you are there, at the place which you want to be.  If you want to be somewhere else than Jurong East, Jurong East is going to be connected to the rest of Singapore with three, four MRT lines in the long term. You can get on to an MRT line, you can be anywhere else you want within half an hour.  And if you need to be in Jurong East, there will be hotels there, there will be shops there, there will be factories; not so far away if you need to visit a factory, there will be restaurants, businesses, everything is in Jurong East.  At last year’s National Day Rally, I talked about Jurong Lake District.  It is a very interesting project.  Lawrence Wong who is here is the Chairman of the Committee making it happen, and we are going to convert the two gardens –the Japanese Garden and the Chinese Garden into something really special and build a very beautiful environment around that.  We will take back some of the land, redevelop it, make it a beautiful living environment. The High-Speed Rail terminal will add to it.  I think it is a win-win deal.

PM Najib: Notwithstanding the complexities of the project, bearing in mind the physical construction alone will take five years, and the design will take a year, which means if you add 2015 by six, it will take you beyond 2020.  That is why we will not want to announce a new deadline, but hopefully, when our two governments can agree on the bilateral arrangements, as mentioned by Prime Minister Lee, and if Singapore builds their side and we build our side, hopefully two lines will meet at some point. 

PM Lee: At the same point.

PM Najib: At the same point.  Then we will get our High-Speed Rail.

Q: Good afternoon, my question is for both prime ministers. Did the meeting further discuss about the Rapid Transit System (RTS) project and as we know that both nations have not announced on the stations at both sides? Thank you. 

PM Lee: We discussed it briefly, it is something we would like to see happen. On the Singapore side we have decided on the Woodlands North station of the Thomson-East Coast line to be the terminus, on the Malaysian side I do not know what the latest status is but it is up to the Malaysians to decide where they would like the terminus to be. Once the two termini are decided, then we can discuss the connection – whether it should be a bridge or a tunnel or some combination. But we are ready to progress it as soon as both sides are ready. 

PM Najib: I think by the time we meet again, we will probably have resolved the RTS issue. 

Q: Good afternoon prime ministers, the first question is on connectivity: Malaysia has earlier proposed the building of a Friendship Bridge, can I ask if this was discussed at the retreat and what is the position of both leaders on this and the second question is both countries are obviously very important economic partners, can I ask how can we further improve and enhance economic ties, thank you. 

PM Lee: The Friendship Bridge is something which we talked about. I think for the long term, as our existing links max out and the capacity needs to be expanded, it is something which we will study, and Singapore is happy to enhance connectivity with Malaysia because I think the more convenient it is for people to move back and forth, the more benefits there will be to both sides. It is not just business but also people to people links, also just for recreation and pleasure. You can go up, you can stay there for the weekend, you can have a meal, come back. These require very convenient interconnects and an additional link, whether in the form of the Friendship Bridge, or some other link, will be helpful. 

What can we do to enhance our links? First of all, we can work together within ASEAN, because ASEAN provides a framework for our cooperation. Malaysia is chairing ASEAN this year. We are completing the ASEAN community at the end of the year and an important part of the ASEAN community is the economic community, economic liberalisations and that will benefit Singapore and Malaysia. We are also both participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. We are not quite settled yet but something which we hope will be brought to fruition soon and if that can be settled that will also help Singapore and Malaysia to free up our trade and to work together. Beyond that of course, there is our bilateral relationship which is a deep and multi-faceted one, and that includes not just businesses talking to one another but also social activities and a bond of confidence and trust between leaders on both sides. I think that is what we have been trying to build progressively and steadily year by year. 

PM Najib: I think as leaders what we have done is to give a very strong political signal with respect to the close ties that we enjoy and given that as a new premise between our countries, a lot of things can happen. We would like to see greater economic integration between our two countries which means investments both sides, it means freeing up the flow of goods and services, even professional people working between the two countries and doing away with non-tariff barriers, for example. That will certainly help strengthen our economic integration. There are many, many things we can do. Last but not least, of course the iconic project the High-Speed Rail – that will really be very significant.