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A bridge too far out

Johor Bahru member of parliament and Backbencher Club Chairman Shahrir Samad must be commended for his courage for being the first Malaysian leader to openly call for the scrapping of the proposed bridge to replace the causeway to Singapore.

This project has been fervently advocated by Johor Umno leaders for many years. It had also been pursued by former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad with such fanatical zeal that he actually forced the launching of the construction of the now aborted 'crooked half-bridge'.

Myriad of reasons have been advanced to justify this project in the past, but none have stood up to scrutiny. Take the two commonest reason - traffic congestion and water pollution.

Water pollution is due to the discharge of untreated sewage from the Johor Bahru to the sea, in particular the darkened and stinking wastes in Sungai Segget that discharge directly into the Tebrau Straits next to the Causeway.

Hence, the cause of pollution is the absence of a sewerage treatment system for the Johor Bahru, not the presence of the Causeway.

The bottleneck for traffic at the Malaysian side of the causeway is at the immigration check point. And the speed of traffic flow through the immigration control is governed by

a) the number immigration booths in operation, and

b) the speed of clearing foreign passports. (Malaysian passports need not be checked).

The speed of clearing Singapore passports can be increased many fold if the long promised electronic smart-card clearing system for Singaporeans is introduced. This smart-card system was in fact proposed by Malaysia many years ago during Mahathir's reign, but ever since Mahathir announced the proposal to replace the Causeway with a bridge, the Malaysian government has mysteriously become mute on this subject.

Is it because to avoid the embarrassment of not having sufficient grounds to support the bridge project once a smart-card system is introduced? There is not the slightest doubt that if such a smart-card system is adopted, current queues at peak hours on a normal days will largely be a thing of the past.

As for the high surge in traffic during certain public holidays, the Second Link should be able to provide relief to these extraordinary traffic volumes. There will of course be those few occasions when mammoth traffic flows clog up both the Causeway and the Second Link simultaneously. In such circumstances, the proposed bridge replacement of the Causeway would hardly make any difference.
Apart from poor economic benefits, Shahrir's other rationale for abandoning the bridge project is that the hands of Malaysian negotiators in outstanding bilateral issues could then be strengthened against their Singapore counterparts.

Singapore has repeatedly declared that it sees no economic justification for the bridge project, as it will incur huge expenses for dubious returns. If Singapore is forced into accepting this project, it will surely seek compensation in the form of better terms for her in other outstanding issues.

In other words, there will bound to be a trade-off. Malaysia will then have to suffer the double misfortune of yielding even more concessions to Singapore in addition to a massive squandering of public funds to build the bridge.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak reacted to Sharir's proposal by saying that the government's decision on the fate of this project '... will depend on the outcome of negotiations between Malaysia and Singapore'.

Najib's stand is unsustainable. When a project's justification is brought into question, the matter must be resolved by consulting the people of this country, not through talks with a foreign government. What if Singapore agrees should we then go ahead full steam ahead to construct the bridge irrespective of whether it is beneficial to the people?

Alternatively, what if Singapore disagrees should we then abandon it, even when its implementation is eventually found to be to the best interests of the people? Why should we make Singapore the arbiter of what is best for us?

This project is clearly a remnant of the Mahathir era of rampant building of frivolous mega-projects, prompted by greed and megalomania. Typically, they do not undergo proper viability studies and they do not pass cost/benefit tests.

They are invariably awarded to hand-picked cronies for construction and subsequent management without proper tenders. These projects are usually initiated by companies or individuals whose purpose is to reap maximum financial rewards for themselves and others involved, with scant consideration to whether these are for the best interests of the people.

The current so-called Integrated Southern Gateway Project which consists of the bridge and the massive CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex) fits into this category.

If an independent assessment is carried out now, it will be found that the proposed bridge cum CIQ to replace the Causeway is a gross blunder that violates national interests. The Causeway is a better alternative in almost all aspects - economic, engineering, user-friendliness and historical value.

To continue the implementation would mean further wastage of funds and the breach of the principles of good governance on a grand scale. However, to discontinue may cause inestimable backlash arising from enraged entrenched interests and the 'loss of face'.

In this seemingly intractable dilemma, should the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi be feeling entrapped? That need not be the case. In fact, the Abdullah leadership could turn this potential pitfall into a golden opportunity to rejuvenate his appeal as a reformist leader.

Abdullah could boldly stand up for the people's interests by reversing his predecessor's decision. For God's sake, he should call a spade a spade for once and signal that he has decisively moved out from his predecessor's shadow and that he has the courage to be his own man.

A decisive stroke of courage and integrity at this juncture can have a remarkable effect in reviving his reform agenda which has seen a steady decline since his triumphant general election achievement in March last year.

How else could he convince the people that the dim hope of his promised land of reforms is still alive, if he should falter once again to cross his predecessor's path in spite of compelling national duty to do so?