Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad today explained why Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng was not chosen to lead renegotiations into the RM81 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project, which was suspended in July last year.
Mahathir said the individual selected to carry out negotiations must be someone who can be accepted by other countries.
He added that the government had faced restrictions in choosing the right person for the job.
“Our choice of candidate is based on certain abilities. That is why we have chosen a person we see as qualified and skilled to negotiate with China.
“This is why we have chosen former finance minister Daim Zainuddin to lead renegotiations,” he said during question time in the Dewan Rakyat.
Mahathir was replying to Ismail Mohamed Said (BN-Kuala Krau), who had asked why Lim was not chosen to lead renegotiations with China on the project.
He told the Dewan Rakyat that discussions are ongoing, with a final result expected soon.
“If the project is scaled down or shortened, east coast states will be able to get the facilities without a lot of money being spent,” he said.
“We are still negotiating for the benefit of the east coast states because we know that other than Terengganu, they owe a lot of money to the federal government and we do not want to burden them with more debt.”
Mahathir said if Pakatan Harapan (PH) had not won last year’s general election, the country would have been sold to others at a certain price, and that when the government could not pay what it owes, it would be subject to bankruptcy action.
“We find that the contract agreement signed did not take into account the interest of the country. It would have benefitted other countries, not us,” he said.
“For instance, if we cancel the agreement, we would have to pay billions in compensation. It becomes a problem when we stop.
“But if we continue, we will be saddled with a debt which will take decades to pay back. The debt, combined with interest, will raise the cost to RM130 billion.”
Ismail Sabri Yaakob (BN-Bera) then asked Mahathir about the costs being borne by the federal government, such as land acquisition costs and the cost of preliminary work including payment to consultants and for studies carried out.
However, Mahathir asked the opposition leader why the question was not raised earlier.
“Why did you not question this when the agreement was signed? Why did you not ask about the consultant costs and land acquisition costs?
“I am confident that if you had asked certain quarters this, they would have cancelled the project. But now it is too late. Work is already in progress, and we are tied to an agreement which is not fair.”
When asked by Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man (PAS-Kubang Kerian) about the costs accumulated since the project’s suspension, Mahathir said the agreement had been done secretively.
“We only knew the cost when we took over. When we looked at the cost, we decided to halt the project.
“But when we do that, under the smart agreement inked by the last government, we need to pay huge compensation.
“It looks like the past administration wishes to bind Malaysia so that it cannot fund the cost of running the country due to the trillions of ringgit in debt,” he said.