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Bridging the divide over the “scenic” bridge

Updated On: Apr 21, 2006

Discontinuing the ‘scenic’ bridge talks has opened up fissures within the Malaysian polity for past legacies to emerge and perhaps hold sway, dampening the enthusiasm and promise of a new vision for the nation – as embodied by the Ninth Malaysia Plan – revealed just last month by an administration that is eager to please.

Mahathir’s scathing attacks on the government’s decision to scrap the bridge constructions and negotiations with Singapore have not stopped. Airing his views to the press for the third time in a week on April 18, he said he could not stay silent if “somebody [PM Badawi] wants to sell Malaysia to other people”. While Mahathir had promised that he would not interfere in the government when he stepped down in October 2003, he retorted: “They think just because I gave that assurance, therefore they can do what they like”.

Beneath the stinging and oft-melodramatic remarks lies a great dismay on the part of the chief engineer of Malaysia’s rapid modernisation and economic growth, and one of Asia’s longest serving political leaders. Mahathir had personally hand-picked Pak Lah to be his successor, but the latter’s recent political maneuverings appear set to burn the bridge of goodwill. A Straits Times article on April 19 reported that Mahathir had “told senior politicians he was hurt that Datuk Seri Abdullah had gone back on his word not to dismantle his legacy”.

PM Badawi, in response, has continued to defend the decision, but decided to leave direct replies to Mahathir’s charges to his other cabinet ministers. Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar had cited legal implications such as the existing water agreements with Singapore as the key factor in reversing the government’s earlier unilateral stand. A Straits Times article on April 19 reported that PM Badawi told reporters on April 18 after opening Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s new Kota Samarahan campus, that “The Cabinet had the chance to discuss the issue and unanimously decided against it…We believe we made the right decision.” 

While the Abdullah administration’s decision has generally received the endorsement of the different factions, such as Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang and the Umno Youth, cracks within the Malaysian polity are nevertheless exposed, and most recently by the public comments of two key former ministers in Mahathir’s Cabinet. Former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah gave a rare public criticism of Mahathir’s recent comments against the government. “I read that Dr Mahathir said the media did not want to publish or broadcast his views, yet during his time, I never had a chance to say anything to the media. But I did not complain about it,” he pointed out.

Former Deputy PM, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s comments added sting: “It is dangerous for Dr Mahathir to proceed at this level of rancour because if the whole issue is explained, then the first blunder was committed by him when he assigned Daim (former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin) to go and negotiate terms (with former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew) without reference to Cabinet, without reference to the Treasury.” Datuk Seri Anwar also reserved criticism for the present administration, saying that the country's problems were compounded by the way it was being run by PM Badawi. “You should have done your homework and you should not allow this matter to be dragged too long,” he said. Datuk Seri Anwar’s inputs however, came right before he announced to the media yesterday (April 19) his decision to return to political life full-time from next month.

Datuk Seri Anwar’s move and Pak Lah’s policies to re-prioritise Malaysia’s future development that draw opposition from some powerful business groups that had benefited from Mahathir’s two decade of rapid industrialization may spell more trouble ahead for the current administration.

Sources:

Scenic Bridge Saga: 'Plan wouldn't have worked anyway' (New Straits Times, 14 Apr 2006)

No plans for talks with S'pore right now (New Straits Times, 19 April 2006)

Mahathir launches scathing attack on Abdullah govt (The Straits Times, 19 April 2006)

PM defends decision on bridge project (The Star, 19 April 2006)

The Scenic Bridge Saga: On unfamiliar and shifting ground, Leaders disagree with Dr M’s views (New Straits Times, 19 April 2006)

Ex-ministers hit out at Mahathir's harsh attacks (The Straits Times, 20 April 2006)

Umno Youth backs decision to scrap bridge (New Straits Times, 20 April 2006)

Kit Siang and Anwar praise PM (The Star, 20 April 2006)

Water laws have big business on the boil (The Straits Times, 20 April 2006)

Anwar to focus full-time on politics from May (The Straits Times, 20 April 2006)