The bridge talks are not simply a reflection of ongoing cross-strait resource contentions over sand, airspace, or even the fate of the 81-year-old Causeway.
The recent annulment of all negotiations with Singapore related to the bridge, including the stoppage of the ‘scenic’ bridge constructions on the Malaysian side, has also revealed the latter’s political climate currently underpinned by the conflicting ideologies of Prime Minister Abdullah and former Prime Minister Mahathir.
Pak Lah’s announcement of the government’s decision last Wednesday (April 12), as an act of deference to public opinion, has effectively discarded Dr. Mahathir’s decade-old plan (since July 1996) to replace the existing Causeway with a 1.4km suspension bridge. In response, Dr. Mahathir has openly articulated his disapproval of the government’s decision and implicitly, Pak Lah’s leadership: "Let me say it frankly that I do not agree with the government's view that the people do not want the crooked bridge." He argued that Malaysians, especially those living in Johor, only rejected the conditions (sand and airspace) set by Singapore and not the construction of the bridge.
Elsewhere, Mahathir reveals in a press interview: "I am hiding my sadness because if I were to cry like I did when I announced my resignation (as Prime Minister at the Umno General Assembly in 2002), I will embarrass you (reporters). So, I laugh…This is because I cannot believe that before I die – and I do not know how long I have left as I am already 80 years old – the sovereignty of our country can be violated so easily. We retreated as if we surrendered our land to others.”
The decision to scrap the bridge has brought about what may be regarded as Dr M’s strongest political assertions since he stepped down as Prime Minister: “I was involved in the (bridge) project from the start, and I know our position.” Against the Abdullah administration’s logic of handling the bridge conflict, Mahathir felt that the government should have consulted the International Court of Justice first before making the decision to back away, and had suggested for a referendum to be held to properly ascertain the views of the people.
Putting his stamp on a related issue of Malaysia’s water supply to Singapore, and perhaps adding provocation to both states’ ongoing negotiations on other bilateral issues, Mahathir has claimed Malaysia’s right, with only six months notice under an existing agreement with Singapore, to relocate the pipelines supplying water to the island. "So, if they (Singapore) say (the relocation of the pipelines) constitutes an 'act of war', it is totally unreasonable," he told a news conference at a visit to the new Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex in Johor last Saturday (April 15).
The Abdullah administration’s decision – cutting back on the RM2.5 billion Integrated Southern Gateway project of which the bridge and the CIQ complex were to be a part of – may also be interpreted in the light of Pak Lah’s ongoing attempts to rescind capital-intensive mega-projects left behind by the Mahathir legacy. The first was a RM14.4 billion project to electrify and install double tracks for the peninsula railway line, followed by the selling off of Proton’s stake in Italian motorcycle maker, Agusta.
Hopefully, these decisions will lead to PM Badawi to stamp his own mark in pursuing a more focused and ambitious strategy to develop Malaysia in the recently unveiled 9th Malaysian Plan.
Mahathir clearly unhappy with decision (The Straits Times, 14 April 2006)
Singapore's view (The Straits Times, 14 April 2006)
Is it a bold move or a cave-in? (The Straits Times, 14 April 2006)
Malaysia has right to relocate pipelines to Singapore (Bernama, 15 April 2006)
Mahathir calls for referendum on issue in Johor (Bernama, 16 April 2006)
Dr M: We could have gone to ICJ (The Star, 16 April 2006)
Unlikely For S'pore, M'sia To Resume Talks On Bridge Issue – Yeo (Bernama, 16 April 2006)