The Transformation of the Road System in Malaysia

Before the country gained independence in 1957, there were only federal and trunk roads in Peninsular Malaysia, built during the British colonial era to enable the Administration to transfer goods and commodities more conveniently. Since then, our roads have undergone massive transformation – from a route once travelled on bullock carts, we now have in place a modern expressway system that is considered to be one of the best in Asia.

These achievements were the result of the Government’s initiatives of providing better network of highways and roads to meet the growing demand for better connectivity throughout the country. The first highway privatisation agreement between the Government and United Engineers (Malaysia) Berhad (UEM) to construct the North – South Expressway (NSE) was implemented under its subsidiary Projek Lebuhraya Utara Selatan Bhd (PLUS). The success of this initiative has led to the building of 30 expressways, which now crisscross the entire country.

Early 20th century
  • Gravel and earth roads made travel very difficult. Trains were the preferred mode of transportation. Roads were only suitable for short-distance travel.
  • Motor vehicles eventually replaced bullock carts with the rapid growth of rubber plantations.
  • The British Board of Trade assessment found that Malayan roads were inadequate for traffic and unsuitable for heavy vehicles. Thus, a road development plan was required.
  • A seven-year plan was launched to develop the Peninsula’s roads by the newly federalised Public Works Department.
  • 60 per cent of the RM250 million allocated went to the upgrading of the North-South trunk road.
  • The British Government developed federal roads to facilitate the transportation of goods and commodities.
  • The Highway Planning Unit was established under the Ministry of Works.
  • The country’s first toll road, a 20-kilometre stretch from Tanjung Malim to Slim River, was completed. It saved journey time by half an hour, and cars were charged 50 sen, buses and lorries RM1 and motorcycles 20 sen.



  • The first comprehensive five-year road development programme was formulated by the Highway Planning Unit, which include expanding rural roads and plans to construct three new highways linking the east and west coasts.
  • Completion of Lebuhraya KL – Seremban (KLS) funded by the World Bank. This was the first highway to be installed with traffic signals by the Public Works Department.
  • Lebuhraya KL – Karak (KLK) was opened to traffic.
  • The Cabinet approved the construction of the entire North-South Expressway (NSE), with an estimated cost of RM2.6 billion to be financed by the private sector. However, the plan did not immediately take off, as no companied were keen to take part.
  • The Highway Planning Unit proposed the inception of the Malaysian Highway Authority (MHA) after the private sector showed a lack of interest in the development of the proposed NSE. MHA would be tasked to ensure uniformity of construction, operation and maintenance and collect tolls to recover its costs.
  • MHA was formed by a Special Act of Parliament – the Highway Authority of Malaysia (Incorporation) Act 1980 (Act 231) to undertake highway development, including designing, constructing, maintaining and collecting toll from highway users. Its first job was among others, to improve the urban roads in Alor Setar, Kedah and to reclaim land for the 14 km Penang Bridge and build toll plazas for KLS.
  • The MHA started work on the NSE.
  • Privatisation policy was announced as a means to spur economic development as well as improve the effectiveness and quality of public services.
  • The Federal Roads (Private Management) Act (Act 306) which allowed private concerns to collect toll for specified period on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis was gazetted.
  • 165 km of tolled expressways and nine toll plazas are in operations and managed by MHA.
  • Jambatan Pulau Pinang was opened, connecting the mainland of Malaysia to the island.
  • A total of 350 km of highways were built, which is only two-fifths of the length of the highway approved by the Cabinet in 1977. The economic crisis also caused cost to go up, from RM2.6 billion in 1977, to RM4 billion. The MHA then informed the Prime Minister that the target date of the NSE completion in 1986 could not be met.
  • On 29 December 1986, Minister of Works announced that the concession had been awarded to the United Engineers (Malaysia) Berhad (UEM) for the NSE project and work began in April 1987.
  • Projek Lebuhraya Utara Selatan Bhd (PLUS) was formed as a subsidiary of UEM to undertake the project. MHA handed over more than 300 km that it had already built to PLUS which took over the design and construction of the remaining sections of the highway.
  • PLUS’ successful management of its expressway led to an influx of privatised highways in Malaysia, which currently stands at 30.

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