September 19, 2015

Is an ASEAN Car Really the Solution to Malaysia’s Traffic Problem?

Is an ASEAN Car Really the Solution to Malaysia’s Traffic Problem?

Just another day for drivers in Kota Kinabalu by anonymous @flickr

Malaysia and China have entered discussion about partnering to produce a car especially for Southeast Asia.  Referred to as the ASEAN car, it would be produced within the region and lower the currently prohibitive cost of automobile purchase for nearby countries.

Being the second most expensive place in the world to buy cars, Malaysia has been on a quest to ramp up local manufacturing for years.  Former PM Mahathir Mohamed brought up the idea for a Malaysian car in the 1980’s and current PM Najib Razak announced a manufacturing partnership with Indonesia in 2014, but nothing has come of either initiative.

Malaysia’s goals in the pending China agreement are presumably economic benefit through new business and quality of life improvement through increased car ownership.  If an agreement is reached with China, it will definitely boost economy.  Cars would also become much cheaper to buy and much more readily available for purchase should the talks lead to something concrete.  But given the state of traffic and air pollution in Malaysia, the question must be asked – would more cars really be a good thing for this country?

Malaysia’s Traffic Problem

The daily grind in Kuala Lumpur by Lynac @flickr

The daily grind in Kuala Lumpur by Lynac @flickr

Spending hours in traffic every day is a fact of life for many Malaysians.  Klang Valley (essentially Kuala Lumpur) is especially nightmarish.  It’s a big problem for health, happiness and even productivity – it was estimated in 2014 that Kuala Lumpur loses RM5.5billion ($1.3billion) in productivity every year due to traffic.

Despite the state of the roads and the price of cars, Malaysia’s automobile sales have skyrocketed in recent years.  Between 2012 and 2013 car sales increased by 4.5%.  That’s a car purchase rate rising faster than population growth (about 1.5%), which Malaysia is already having a problem with.  If the country is having trouble serving 1.5% more people every year, imagine how big a problem 4.5% more large, gas-emitting and traffic-congesting cars every year will be.

Local car manufacturer Proton is enjoying more sales because the Ringgit has declined recently and their cars are less expensive, but what comes as a boon to economy will likely create a traffic jam for the entire country’s development in the not-so-long term.  A new ASEAN car might solve the immediate problem of getting from point A to point B, but could put Malaysia in a very tough position.

The Failure of New Highway Construction

One attempt at solving the problem has been building new highways.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked.  There is reportedly no master plan for highway construction in Malaysia, and this is showing in the effectiveness of new roads.  Building projects haven’t reduced congestion, and are recently being met with public opposition due to the negative effects they have on environment.

Highways in Petaling Jaya by Alpha @flickr

Highways in Petaling Jaya by Alpha @flickr

Every new highway Malaysia builds cuts into its dwindling supply of tropical forest.  These areas are not only beautiful, rare and exceptionally diverse natural habitats, they are vital to Malaysia’s social and economic future.  Rich forests act as ‘carbon sinks’ that suck carbon and other pollutants out of the air.  Malaysia’s air quality is some of the worst in the world – it is causing community health to plummet and medical expenses to explode – and would become even nastier if more trees are razed for highway construction.  Forest root systems act to hold soil and water in place during monsoon rains, which is important for water pollution and soil erosion control.

Last month, Selangor Menteri Besar, Azmin Ali voiced his opinion on the subject.  He publicly stated that building more highways does not necessarily solve the traffic problem, and that the focus should be on improving public transportation efficiency.

Public Transport as an Alternative

Many people think that the solution to Malaysia’s traffic problem lies in public transport.  A recent article in Malaysian Digest swoons over Singapore’s public transit system, calling it “world class” and wishing Malaysia’s was more like it.  Unfortunately, bus travel in Kuala Lumpur is slow, inconsistent and unpleasant, and the same goes for most large cities in Malaysia.  The problem loops back to the traffic problem once again – buses can’t keep to their schedules because the roads are jammed up with cars.

At present, the state of public transit makes car ownership a necessity for some families – so much so that they go deeply into debt in order to purchase a car.  This time last year, Malaysian household debt was a shocking 89.2% of GDP.  Of this debt, 51% was tied up in car loans.  Cheaper cars might alleviate this problem slightly, but car ownership in general will be a loss if Malaysia’s traffic problems keep worsening.

This issue is a huge stumbling block for Malaysia’s development as a country.  Traffic eats at productivity, drains community health, ruins public spaces and hurts tourism income.  Indeed, trains, bikes and buses are more likely to solve the problem than cars.  Land Public Transport Commission chair Syed Hamid Albar made a good point to this effect in a recent speech.

“No country has ever climbed from low-income to middle- or high-income status without a significant and dynamic land public transport. Therefore, it is important for us now to give priority to public transport investment, rather than giving priority to building roads in the name of connectivity and relieving congestion,” he said.

The outlook on Malaysian public transport is often apathetic, but a change could actually be on the horizon.  Syed Hamid’s speech came on the heels of a survey indicating that good public transport is in fact possible for the country.  The study revealed that 71% of people in the South Klang Valley (near Kuala Lumpur) were satisfied with public transport.  It also showed that all land transport systems were committed to improving a trend proven by recent investments in Kuala Lumpur’s mass rapid transit (MRT) project.  The initiative has seen 48 contract packages worth RM19.8bil (US $5.6bil) offered since 2012 for various public transport-related projects.

A Rapid Transit bus in Klang Valley near KL by mailer_diablo @wikipedia

A Rapid Transit bus in Klang Valley near KL
by mailer_diablo @wikipedia

A Tough Pill to Swallow

The fact is that if things don’t change, Malaysia’s traffic problems will seriously hobble the country.  It’s already being hobbled, as the RM5.5billion annual loss in productivity proves, but what is a problem now could be a crisis in 5 or 10 years.

In order to achieve its dream of becoming a streamlined, prosperous and sustainable country, Malaysia will have to find a way out of this situation.  At present, the best possible solution appears to be public transportation – perhaps not a deal with China that puts more cars on the road, more families in debt, and more productivity dollars down the drain.

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