Should People Be Sacrificial Lambs to KLIA?
By: Kim Quek - 12.03.2002

The forced shifting of airlines from the old Subang Airport to the grossly underutilized Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) is a classical example of the pitiful lack of rational thinking that characterizes the Barisan Nasional Government.

Subang Airport is a large-scale airport, equipped with modern facilities, and its third Terminal Building was only completed during the construction of KLIA several years ago.  It had served as Malaysia's international gateway since the early sixties until KLIA opened in 1998, and its role as the domestic hub continues until today.  Due to its proximity to the city of Kuala Lumpur (KL), it is the natural choice as THE airport for domestic traffic.  In fact, its present role cannot be replaced by KLIA, as the latter is eminently ill suited for domestic traffic considering its long distance from KL and the relatively small geographical spread of Peninsular Malaysia, thus making transit time and transit costs to and from KL disproportionately high and prohibitive.

KLIA's glaring handicaps as a domestic airport are easily seen in that it takes almost the same length of time to fly to the southern gateway of Johor Bahru or the northern gateway of Penang via KLIA as by driving a car to these destinations from KL; and the taxi fare to KLIA is so expensive that it is almost as much as some of the air fares.  So, why should any one travel to these destinations by air, if he is forced to use KLIA?

The closure of Subang Airport to all commercial jet flights will almost definitely kill second echelon airlines such as Air Asia, which now struggles to survive plying lesser routes, consisting mainly of domestic destinations.  Of greater significance, is the denial of domestic air traveling to large sections of domestic travelers.

This latest decision by the Malaysian Cabinet to shut off Subang Airport defies rational explanations.  Why should Malaysian taxpayers who have spent a huge fortune to build up the massive  and modern facilities in Subang be denied the right to enjoy the fruits of their spending?  Is it right for the Barisan Nasional Government to kill off second echelon airlines in this Country, now serving the needs of domestic travelers that could not otherwise be provided by the national airline MAS?  Is it right to deny Malaysians of economical/alternative air travels?

While the Cabinet has not justified its decision since its announcement, another source has provided the answers.  Under the heading 'KLIA on track for regional hub status', the Star newspaper carried an interview with the Executive Director of Malaysian Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB), the operator of KLIA. That interview provides the thinking that motivated the closure of Subang Airport.

Simply put, it is to rescue KLIA from failure due to underutilizations.

According to MAHB's presentations, by shutting down Subang Airport, 231 flights will be shifted to the flight-starved KLIA, and that will help boost KLIA¡¦s passenger numbers from the present 14.6 million to the magical figure 18 million, which is the 'critical mass' that will transform KLIA into a 'regional hub', a status that will make KLIA so attractive that other airlines will flock to KLIA.

Before going too deeply into the issue, let us dispense with a few preliminary fallacies.

First, it is wishful thinking that all the 231 flights diverted from Subang will end up successfully in KLIA, because many will simply disappear due to lack of economic viability for the passengers as described above.

Second, the deciding factor for passenger numbers for KLIA is not how attractive KLIA is, but how attractive Malaysia is as a country for tourism and business.  And that, to a large extent, is shaped by Malaysia's politics and economics.  Artificially boosting passenger figures through shutting down alternative airports will not increase KLIA's international traffic.  In fact, it is the height of folly that a big, modern airport should be shut down to the detriment of domestic air industry and the deprivation of domestic air travels to local travelers, purely for the purpose of boosting the passenger numbers of another airport, be it how prestigious or grand.

The inevitable set back to the economy and the consequential inconvenience inflicted on the public arising from the closure of Subang Airport begets the question:  Was KLIA created to serve the public, or was it the reverse, that public interests should be sacrificed to serve KLIA?

That the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are constantly embarrassed by the continuing 'white elephant' status of KLIA
since its opening four years ago is understandable.  But is it right to cover up one folly by committing another?  The Nation has already paid dearly to quench the PM's thirst for grandiosity in the premature construction of KLIA, shouldn't the Cabinet have some mercy now on the people by sparing the Subang Airport, the removal of which constitutes a painful loss to the people?

The above example illustrates how an economically unviable grandiose project can boomerang to make the people suffer. Unlike false political propaganda, which can be executed without being detected, an economically unjustifiable mega project will reveal its true colours when it inevitably inflicts its toll on the economic well being of the country.

Much to the misfortune of Malaysia, KLIA is but one of many of PM's mega follies. Together with the failed Perwaja Steel (RM 10 billion), KLIA (RM 12 billion, including its express links to KL) has come to the fore due to the glaring visibility of their failures.  Other mega follies with less conspicuous 'white elephant' status are the Petronas Twin Towers (over RM 2 billion), Putrajaya (over RM 20, on-going project), Bakun Dam (RM 9 billion, initial stage) and New Johor Bridge to Singapore with the associated complex (in the pipeline).

One dreads to ponder the cumulative damage to the economy when all these projects mature to bear their ill fruits in due course.

And the saddest part of all is, all PM's mega follies are unstoppable.  There is simply no built-in mechanism left in our
present political system to prevent such follies, our original democratic system established by our founding fathers having been thoroughly corroded by the two decade Mahathir rule.

- Kim Quek

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