Has it ever occurred to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad that while he may not mind the "crooked half bridge" at the Johor-Singapore Straits immortalizing his bizarre diplomatic brinkmanship against Singapore, Johoreans may be dead worried of the harm that may befall them?
For a start, pedestrians may have to walk 3km instead of the present 1km to Singapore, and motorists will have to endure bumper-to-bumper driving on the slopes for most of the 3km distance.
Then, the pockets of commuters may have to be burnt by the anticipated steep increase in toll to cover the huge costs of the project. The end result is an expensive tortuous crossing that will discourage commuting between the two countries.
Combined with the negative emotional impact that this stark looking bridge may stir among Singaporeans, the new crossing is likely to discourage visitors from a source which constitute more than half of Malaysia's total tourist arrivals. And this will spell doom for the economy of Johor, which heavily depends on consumer spending and investment by Singaporeans.
The shocking fact is that, against this backdrop of overwhelming disadvantages, Mahathir has not produced any creditable justification for building any bridge for that matter - not to mention this grotesque monstrosity of a bridge.
It is a mystery to me what so obsessed Mahathir that he must demolish the present causeway and build a bridge over the Straits. Myriads of reasons have been given, but none can bear a closer scrutiny.
A few years ago, the main thrust for this bridge was aesthetics - that the new bridge would look more beautiful and would bring in more tourists, thus befitting its status as the "southern gateway to Malaysia".
Now obviously that thrust cannot be sustained. Instead of the "new beauty", we have a queer showpiece to the world that perhaps is more in tune with Malaysia's image as characterised by the "Malaysia Boleh!" slogan.
With the aesthetic issue turned from positive to negative, we now have a new thrust - that the new bridge would "facilitate the transportation of cargo from Pasir Gudang to the Tanjung Pelepas Port," quoting Mahathir. (The Star, Aug 2, 2003)
That Mahathir statement is perhaps the closest to a potential economic rationale for replacing the causeway with a bridge.
Malaysia has been trying hard to develop southern Johor as a transportation hub of the region, with the two seaports of Pasir Gudang and Pelepas respectively playing crucial roles. Needless to say, any additional linkage between the two ports as that thrown up by the new bridge is an advantage. The question is: do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?
Take the instance quoted by Mahathir - transporting cargo from Pasir Gudang to Pelepas Port by sea via the Straits instead of the present land route. The advantage is dubious, as the additional costs and time in handling during the loading at Pasir Gudang and the unloading at Pelepas will easily outweigh whatever saving in replacing the present land haul of 60 km with the sea haul of 50 km.
Equally dubious is the notion that upon completion of the project, ships will be able to call at the two Johor ports consecutively - as if they can't do so now. The fact is that ships can always call at the two ports consecutively, with or without the new bridge, the difference being that with the present causeway, ships have to go round the island of Singapore, which may involve the sailing of an additional 25 nautical miles.
The advantage of using the Straits to ply from one port to another is unlikely to be significant, considering the constraints on the size of ships (bridge clearance) and the speed of sailing allowed, and the limited number of ships that need to call at the two ports consecutively.
It is hence inconceivable that any one should cherish the fallacy that shipping opportunity at the Straits is sufficient a justification to warrant the replacement of the causeway by a bridge.
Now, let us look at other oft-repeated main reasons for this project: a) reduction of pollution, b) removal of traffic congestion and c) boost to tourism and economy.
Middle-aged Johoreans should be able to recall the frolicking time they spent on the Lido beach (near the general hospital) in Johor Bahru during the sixties and seventies. By the eighties, the beach was deserted due to pollution. Now, the darkened seabed at the same beach exposed during low tides bears testimony to the worsening pollution at that stretch of the Johor Bahru beach particularly over the past two decades.
Is the causeway blamed for such pollution? No, the culprit is not the causeway, but the absence of sewerage treatment system for the city of Johor Bahru. As it is, sewers from the city, including those from the general hospital, discharge directly into the sea without treatment.
Three decades ago, the government was talking about the urgent need to install sewerage treatment system to prevent the spread of disease and pollution of the sea. But no action has been taken to fulfill that urgent need to date. And so, the unrelenting process of sea pollution continues, with or without the causeway.
It is not difficult to see that the key to solving the pollution problem is to nip the pollutants at source by installing sewerage treatment system, not the removal of the causeway.
The bottleneck of causeway traffic is always at the immigration checkpoints. Hence, traffic flow capacity is determined by the number of immigration booths available, not by the number of motor lanes on the causeway or bridge.
Current daily queues during peak hours seen on the Johor side is due mainly to insufficient booths opened for traffic, and time consumed in processing Singapore passports. By allocating additional manpower during peak hours and with the introduction of electronic smart cards for Singapore commuters (promised several years ago, but not implemented yet), these daily queues can be largely eliminated.
As for the unusually large traffic volume during certain public holidays, there is always the Second Link to take up the upsurge. In this connection, it is ironic that while the Second Link (RM2 billion) is still heavily underutilised in spite of being operational for more than five years, we are talking about replacing the causeway with a bridge for the purpose of boosting traffic capacity.
The important principle to recognize in the endeavour to increase traffic volume is that the key lies in expanding the immigration checkpoints, not in widening the width of causeway or bridge.
As we have not exhausted the possibilities of expanding the current checkpoints and the Second Link is unlikely to be fully utilized for many more years, the new bridge proposal could not possibly be justified on traffic consideration for the foreseeable future.
TOURISM AND ECONOMY
There is no basis to believe that a new bridge will bring in more tourists or attract more investment. Tourist influx through Johor is determined by tourist attractions available in Johor and other parts of the Peninsular, and foreign investment is determined by the attractiveness of the local investment climate. By no stretch of the imagination can we link these to the construction of a new bridge.
Instead of dumping the huge fortune on this wasteful bridge project, Johor tourism will have benefited immensely if only a fraction of this money is diverted to develop intelligent and well-managed tourist projects. As it is, there is a dearth of worthwhile tourist attractions in and around Johor Bahru.
On reflection, I may have gone on a futile journey looking for rationality for this project, for in Mahathir's mega projects, the term "economic rationale" is not found in his vocabulary.
For instance, this project is no more irrational than the on-going Bakun Hydro Dam project (RM 9 billion), which kept the original design capacity in spite of dropping its original main market - the Peninsular consumers.
Still, I am irked by the practice of cronyism every time a major government project comes on stream. In the case of this bridge project, the contractor was pre-determined long before details or even outline of the project were ascertained.
In such circumstances, how could the government assure the taxpayers that the project would be constructed on fair prices, that the contractor was selected without favouritism, that this project is not rife with corruption? Or, is the greed for personal wealth the main propellant for this project?
Finally, a word on this "crooked half bridge". If this bridge is completed in its current form, it will be a permanent monument that stands testimony to Mahathir's bitter quarrels with Singapore in the last phase of his reign as an absolute autocrat in this country.
Due to its extraordinary form - an "S" bend joining to the middle of the causeway, this bridge will be unique in the annals of mankind, and will definitely be on the lips of every foreign visitor, who will inevitably ask: Why was this funny bridge constructed? The local guide will then tell a long story, which in all likelihood will include the name of Mahathir.
What will the storyteller say of Mahathir then? That depends of course on who the storyteller is. But more important, it depends on whether Mahathir is still in power. Once out of power, can Mahathir be sure that local public opinion will be as kind to him as it is now? Can he be sure that his decision can withstand the test of posterity?
Whatever he is thinking now, he is well advised to take heed of Abraham Lincoln's famous words: "You can fool some people all the time, or you can fool all people some of the time, but you cannot fool all people all the time."