Malaysian politicians told to keep quiet about $20bn East Coast Rail Link as talks continue

China has offered to cut the cost of Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link by half, according to reports in the local press yesterday, however the country’s government seems uncertain how to respond, with ministers making contradictory statements over the course of the past few days.

Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s finance minister, told reporters that talks were continuing, and had entered a "government-to-government" phase, suggesting that Beijing had taken over from the project’s contractor, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).

He added that a "gag order" had been imposed on cabinet members, ordering them to stop making statements about the ECRL.

This followed remarks by Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali at the weekend that suggested a final decision to terminate the project had been taken by the cabinet, and comments on Tuesday by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who said no final decision had been made and negotiations were still under way.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s Straits Times cited an anonymous source close to talks between Malaysian officials the CCCC who said: "China has offered a big reduction on the cost, as much as around half".

The offer was made before Mahathir’s government decided to cancel the contract this month, according to the Straits Times‘ source.

And the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur this week released a song on its Facebook page to commemorate 45 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Titled Bahu Kiri, or "left shoulder" in Malay, and sung in Mandarin, the lyrics speak of a friendship against all odds and reminding the two nations that they share one shoreline. Lyrics include the line: "My right shoulder protects you from the wind and the rain, my left shoulder is for you to hang on to."

Work on the 688km line was agreed in November 2016 by the government of Najib Razak, and work on site began in 2017. It was halted in July last year following the election victory of Mahathir Mohamed, on the grounds that its initial cost estimate of $13bn had grown by $7bn and the country could not support the debt burden.

Image: Mahathir Mohamad chairs a cabinet meeting (from the prime minister’s official Twitter feed)

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