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.