Beyond the crooked bridge

Some Singaporeans may be bewildered why former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to raise the issue of the crooked bridge that connects Johor Baru with Woodlands, Singapore. The decibel level has recently been ratchetted up in the wake of the outline settlement agreed between Singapore and Malaysia over land leased by Malayan Railway in the republic.

The settlement and the revival of the bridge issue are connected. But the latter has nothing to do with Singapore.

Currently, there are two road links between Singapore and Malaysia. The newer one is a bridge that joins Tuas on the Singapore side with Galang Petah on the Malaysian side. The older one is a causeway, built about 90 years ago joining Woodlands with the centre of the Johor state capital, Johor Baru.

A railway and water  pipeline also run on the causeway.

When Mahathir was in office, he proposed that the causeway be replaced by a bridge, a project that would be complicated by having to consider the rail track and the large diameter pipe. At the time, the main issue was Mahathir’s contention that Malaysia was being cheated by perfidious Singaporeans over the price of raw water Singapore could take from a river in Johor under an old treaty and the bridge was just a flanking attack.

Singapore of course refused to contemplate renegotiating the water price, nor saw any reason to demolish the causeway.

At that point, Mahathir in a fit of pique said, fine, you can keep your half of the causeway, but Malaysia would replace its half with a bridge. Apparently, it couldn’t be a simple bridge, because the road needed to ascend to some height in order to reach the new customs and immigration building that Malaysia had begun building on top of a hill on the Johor Baru side. As well, the Malaysians wanted enough clearance under the bridge to allow boats to sail through. So the design that was produced was a crooked one, as shown in this drawing:

After Mahathir left office in 2003, the noise level abated and the general consensus that a crooked bridge would be absurd was left to stand. But in the last month or so, it has come up again, once more with Mahathir leading the charge.

To understand what’s happening, one has to cast a glance at the railway land issue and the water treaty. Last month, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak agreed with Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong on a formula for terminating the lease on railway land. This removes a thorn in bilateral relations. As for water, Singapore has signalled that one of the two treaties will be allowed to lapse next year without renewal. Another thorny issue swept off the table.

But Mahathir needs to keep tension high between Singapore and Malaysia, and thus the bridge issue has been resurrected. Singapore is being condemned for not agreeing to demolish the causeway. Why?

The key to understanding the politics of it is to note Mahathir’s open support for Perkasa, a Malay rights group. It is not formally affiliated with any political party, but instead acts as a lobby group defending (and extending?) existing privileges for the Malay ethnic group in Malaysia. Some say it is UMNO’s answer to the creeping popularity of PAS, the Islamic party, among Malays. PAS won about half of Malay votes in some states in the 2008 general election, dethroning UMNO from its long-held position as defender of Malay interests. The UMNO party is the majority partner in the coalition Barisan Nasional that forms the federal government, but needs to regain Malay support.

Mahathir’s decades-old strategy for  attracting Malay support is to bash Singapore, with rhetoric that paints Singapore as a Chinese republic, complete with traits of arrogance and avarice. This neatly sidesteps the risks of provoking racial unrest within Malaysia by not directly attacking Malaysian Chinese (though Perkasa in its other communications, seem to be doing so as well). By keeping conflict with Singapore front and centre, Mahathir hopes to secure the loyalty of Malays, reversing their defection to PAS. Nothing like having an external enemy to cement internal solidarity.

The settlement over the railway issue and the evaporation of one of the water treaties next year cannot be good news to Mahathir and Perkasa. Lowering of tensions undercuts their domestic agenda.

So launch the crooked bridge again. Accuse Singaporeans of being disrespectful (for questioning Malaysia’s request to demolish the whole causeway) and money-minded (for asking for cost-benefit analyses for the project). Play the victim card: If Malaysia is to be made to look silly building a bridge like that for no great benefit, it’s entirely the fault of Chinese-run Singapore.

4 Responses to “Beyond the crooked bridge”

  1. 1 Mat Alamak 4 July 2010 at 00:54

    I think Mahathir can rant all he want but the reality will not allow for a crooked bridge to happen.

    Because Singapore will not allow for a crooked bridge. And the splitting of the causeway cannot be a unilateral decision, as pointed out by a Singapore minister some years back. The causeway is a sovereignty issue of both countries, even if it is in Malaysian waters.

    And no country will take trangression of sovereignty matters lightly, even going to war to protect it.

    And of course on this aspect, Singapore has a strong deterrent in the form of the SAF with advanced weaponry to compensate for small size and army. Not to forget also being a strong defence ally with the US, with its naval and air bases serving the US Asia Pacific fleet. On this score I must salute the PAP.

    And sometimes Mahathir cannot be taken too seriously when he talks, even when he was prime minister. He is also smart, understood the politics of reality and do what is right (although the talk may be wrong but politically right for his objective) which is why he was also the longest serving PM.

  2. 2 Ronald Lim 4 July 2010 at 09:16

    Mahathir’s bias also has to be read in the historic context of where he began. LKY wrote in his memoirs that when Mahathir was a student at University of Malaya, during a private event at a professor’s home, he was made to enter the house through the back door in a deeply humiliating experience.

    Mahathir’s rise in Malaysia came on the back of the 1969 riots in KL when he wrote The Malay Dilemma examining the historic social changes and inequities between the races in Malaysia that led to the riots – one that very clearly led to the NEP. If I’m not wrong (though I can’t remember exactly), he was one of the ultras in UMNO in the early 1970s.

    In that sense, since he rose on the back of racial politics and was imbued with a deep distrust for the prospect of true multi-culturalism, it is no surprise that he is playing the race card again. He was, after all, part of the seed of racial politics in present-day material.

    Still, I still can’t get my head around the extent of his resentment toward Singapore… I suspect that there must be something that runs deeper.

  3. 3 Old Engineer 5 July 2010 at 00:16

    As I did not buy / read the memoirs of LKY, I would be grateful if Ronald Lim, or any other reader, could enlighten me on the background of the incident when Mahathir was asked to enter into the professor’s home through the backdoor. Of course, I am aware that in the earlier years, University of Singapore was not in existence yet, and the medical faculty of the University of Malaya was located in Singapore then. Consequently Mahathir studied medicine in Singapore.

    “The Malay Dilemma” written by Mahathir created quite a bit of controversy when it was first published. Many non-Malays hold the opinion that the book had a certain effect leading to the racial riot which took place in Malaysia on 13 May 1969. I do not remember if the booked was banned in Malaysia shortly after the May 13 incident. However, I do remember that Mahathir was expelled by the Prime Minister then Tengku Abdual Rahman from UMNO. He re-joined the party after Tengku Abdual Rahman stepped down as the PM.

    On the subject of the crooked bridge, I have always wondered how the crooked bridge plus the huge custom / immigration complex being approved by the Malaysian authority. Besides having to involve the approval of another country, the crooked bridge is an engineer’s mightmare, especially if it is only built halfway through. The diversion for both the existing railway line and several huge water pipelines are almost impossible. The logical assumption that both the railway line and the water pipes would tug along the new crooked bridge to get into Singapore; however (A) the difference in levels would pose a huge challenge to the diversions; (B) how to ensure that the diversion of the water pipelines would not cause a problem to the water supply to Singapore?

    I dont remember seeing any explanation on the diversion of these 2 structures when Malaysia announced their plan for the crooked bridge. It was also a big puzzle how, before getting some in-principle approval from Singapore, Malaysia had gone aheand to construct the half bridge. You could see that numerous columns and piers for the half bridge were constructed when the custom and immigration complex was first opened.

  4. 4 anony 5 July 2010 at 09:07

    Mahathir is not too far wrong when he says that Spore is a Chinese republic. It is very evident is it not what with AVA’s recent farming venture in Jilin province in Northern China to make us dependent on a superpower that can make or break our logistics food supply should it want to, high influx of China students in our tertiary institutions, liberal immigration policies towards low skilled China immigrants etc.

    In Mahathir’s mind as well as those with pro-Malay sentiments, they still regard Spore as an annex to their motherland.

    It just brings up a very glaring contrast for Sporeans & for myself whenever Mahathir speaks about asserting more pro-Malaysian pressure on us that Spore has changed a lot in terms of racial composition with a different culture taking root with the high influx of China & India immigrants who have no historical baggage towards Malaysia or share no common interests.

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