BN hair-splitting over MRT cost a diversionary tactic

comments     Rafizi Ramli     Published     Updated

MP SPEAKS I applaud Malaysiakini's attempt to decipher the many numbers that have been thrown to the public by the Najib administration to explain the total cost of MRT.

While it is good, I hope even Malaysiakini will not fall for BN's trick in hiding and confusing the public over the real issue by flooding the public space with continuous exchanges over the smallest of issues.

When I picked up the issue in mid-December, it was never about the precise cost of MRT to the dollars and cents. After all, that is for the engineers and quantity surveyors to do their job.

I first raised an issue with Najib's claim because there must be an accountability over capital spending by the government.

The annual amount allocated for capital spending (referred as “development expenditure”) follows an extensive annual budgeting process that consumes a lot of public funds (in the form of civil servants' time and resources) and culminated in the Dewan Rakyat in the form of a budget speech by the prime minister.

Whatever numbers presented and approved by the Dewan Rakyat annually on capital spending (as well as all other expenditures) must reflect the integrity of the process and the people who prepare the numbers.

These numbers then form an important part of nation building because they are used for short-, medium- and long-term planning for the country. For example, financiers looking at determining interest rates to fund public projects rely on these numbers.

Therefore, the total cost of the biggest ever infrastructure project the public has undertaken (and will pay for) that was presented as part of the national budget (and supposedly transformative “Economic Transformation Plan” or ETP) cannot simply be written off as "no longer relevant" (as clarified by MRT Corp on behalf of the government).

If a RM40 billion approved in 2010 as the total cost for MRT can simply be set aside through one statement by MRT Corp as "no longer relevant", it means the whole approval process in Dewan Rakyat can be deemed as "irrelevant".

No accountability for massive cost overruns

The people should not have to search high and low to get an accurate breakdown of a massive public project that we will end up paying. The prime minister and his whole cabinet owe us every major breakdown without us having to ask.

The reality is starkly different.

There has never been any accountability for massive cost overruns of any public project. If Putrajaya does not have to be accountable for whatever it spends on public infrastructure projects, why bother even having an approved budget in the first place?

Over the last few years, MPs (myself, Tony Pua, Ong Kian Ming and Wong Chen, to name a few) have taken up the task of continuously scrutinising major public expenditure in order to push for financial accountability. With very limited resources (I don't even have a researcher), we rely heavily on Google and publicly available documents.

The only avenue available for us to raise concerns over public finances and the subsequent lack of accountability is over the media. We then have to face the "droid armies" deployed by BN - the first group is the army of lawyers who readily sue any MP when instructed by the paymaster; the second group is the various writers, bloggers, journalists (mostly anonymous under various names) whose job is to cloud the real issue by hair splitting: hence the war of words that follows.

The purpose of the constant war of words and legal suits mounted by these droid armies is not to provide accountability or truth; it is precisely the opposite.

It serves as an effective deterrent to stop MPs and activists from raising questions because not many of us would want to go through constant political attacks through TV3, Utusan Malaysia and the string of paid cybertroopers that form a part of government/BN propaganda machine.

At the end of the day, the real issue is this: I should not have to ask to get a straight answer in the first place. Najib swears an oath of public duty, he is duty bound to present a credible estimate of any public spending (let alone the largest public expenditure like MRT) that is complete, truthful, accurate, realistic, cost effective and timely.

Massive projects rolled out

If the cost estimate for MRT that he presented so far lacks the thoroughness, sincerity and accuracy of the costing and financial planning to the point that it fails to convince the public to accept the figure he quoted, it means all the cost estimates of other projects fall into the same category. Furthermore, he is rolling out massive projects one after another financed by public debts, even as we speak.

We are potentially looking at hundreds of billions of ringgit worth of debt-financed public projects (i.e. East Coast Rail Link, KL-Singapore High Speed Train, MRT2 and MRT3, LRT3, etc) which may balloon two to three times in cost over the near term, judging from the fiasco of the MRT cost dispute so far.

As to the minor criticism that I was selective in choosing the MRT projects with the lowest cost per km (Seoul’s MRT Line9 and Barcelona’s Barcelona Sants-La Sagrera) as opposed to higher cost per km incurred by Singapore’s MRT extension projects, this is my explanation:

1. Why Barcelona Sants-La Sagrera?

MRT Corp’s justification is that the RM40 billion cost estimate presented by Najib in 2010 was without rolling stock (electric trains and related system) and land acquisition. In other words, it was purely from the construction cost perspective.

In 2009/2010, the exchange rate was circa RM3.2 to US$1. At RM40 billion for 150km, this translates to US$12.5 billion for 150km of construction costs, giving a cost of US$83 million per km, which is double the cost of Barcelona Sants-La Sagrera’s US$39 million per km despite the fact that the latter was a 5.8km tunnel through a mountain.

If we are just comparing construction cost, the 2010 cost presented by Najib was already double than a more complicated project in Barcelona. Read more here.

2. Why Seoul’s MRT Line9:

This system was all underground and therefore should have been more expensive. In fact, at certain stations, Line9 has quadruple tracks to allow trains to by-pass the stations. Not only should this have been more expensive because it was all underground, it should have been more expensive because the specifications were higher compared to KL MRT.

Unfortunately, despite the lower specifications and only approximately 30 percent underground, KL MRT still costs twice as expensive, if we were to take into account the total costs with rolling stocks, system and land acquisitions).

3. Why not Singapore’s MRT?

Singapore’s MRT also displays similar planning and implementation problems that led to cost overruns. Read more on this here.

We are supposed to compare with the best and what a smoothly executed project would have cost elsewhere, not with another project which is also going through similar public scrutiny because of cost overruns such as the one in Singapore.

If MPs have to battle it through in order to get what is rightfully important information that should have been public in the first place, this country is going on sale to creditors very soon. Because there will not be enough opposition MPs to pour through all the details from scarcely available public information as one by one we will be sued, sentenced and disqualified.

It is important not to lose sight of the bigger issue and not to fall for the hair-splitting diversionary tricks of these faceless, paid droids who make a living out of misleading the public, because their ministers are incompetent to face us up in Parliament or elsewhere when it comes to numbers.


RAFIZI RAMLI is a PKR vice-president and MP for Pandan.

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