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Singapore-KL high speed rail: How will it help “Brand Malaysia”?

The news on the opening of the high speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur (KL) is exciting.

The first trains between the two cities are scheduled to run in 2026. Travelers should be able to complete the 350km journey in about 90 minutes with ‘TGV-style’ trains reaching speeds in excess of 300km/hour.

The news is not surprising for Singapore.  Here is a city that has set its hopes on being the “Smart Nation” since releasing this bold aspiration in 2014.

By contrast from a broader perspective, Malaysia is not somewhere that is typically perceived as being technologically advanced.  In recent times, Malaysia has been hit hard by the downturn in resources.  Additionally, political events regarding the alleged misallocation of funds have not reflected well on the country.

Put simply, “Brand Malaysia” needs a makeover.

The establishment of a high speed rail link between Singapore and KL is likely to favour Singapore’s northern neighbour more than the City State.  The reason for this comes down to how people outside of the two countries perceive each capital city.

Singapore is a 21st Century phenomenon.  It’s politically stable, affluent, technologically advanced and well situated in the Asia Pacific.  By contrast, KL is associated with a political administration that some have come to question since the 1MDB case attracted public scrutiny in early 2015. Much of a brand’s success is contingent on trust.

Malaysia now needs to set about restoring this in some key areas. Malaysia is an economy that should be yielding more than what it currently is.  It is rich in natural resources and has a number of lucrative trading partners that have long associations with the country.

Despite these favourable settings, Malaysia has not enjoyed the same positive press as Singapore in recent years.  This may be about to change with the advent of a high speed rail link between the two capital cities.

The role of countries and cities has changed in the last decade. Today, destinations compete with each other, striving to achieve competitive advantage. Politicians have discovered that a positive image results in important economic benefits.  The corollary of this is that cities are now being managed in a similar way to how banking, telecommunication and technology brands are.

Brands are successful in the short term if they can establish relevance with their target audience and carve out points of differentiation from their competition. In the longer term, brands will experience true success if their users hold the brand in esteem and trust the brand wholeheartedly.

In the short 51-year history of Singapore, the country has set itself apart from neighbouring cities like Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok. In contrast, the same cannot be said about KL. The creation of a high speed rail link between Singapore and KL has the propensity to boost the KL brand and the broader perception of Malaysia as well.

Whilst, China has invested substantially in high speed rail in the last decade, few other countries in the Asia Pacific (Outside of Japan) have been able to make such an investment. The awareness that the rail link will create for both Singapore and KL is substantial.  Whilst such innovative thinking is to be expected for Singapore, the same cannot be said for KL.

Herein lies the beauty of the link between the two cities.  What is good for Singapore’s brand will quickly become good for KL’s brand.  Once the rail link is operational, the two cities will start to have greater dependence on one another, meaning their fortunes will be more closely entwined.

An interesting thing happened in China when high speed rail was fully operational. Cities that were connected by high speed rail started to experience greater levels of economic prosperity than those cities that were not on the grid. Similar patterns have also been identified in Japan, France and Germany. The presence of fast trains linking capital centres has a mutually beneficial impact on the cities that are connected.

Given some of the challenges with KL’s perception in recent years, a fast train link, with a high tech city such as Singapore, could not have come at a better time.

The writer is Nick Foley is the president of Landor Southeast Asia Pacific & Japan for Landor.

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