Earlier this week, the Malaysian government has confirmed that it will be going ahead with the building of a half-bridge to replace the Johor part of the Causeway which links Malaysia and Singapore.
(Johore is the southern-most state of Malaysiabordering Singapore).
Malaysian has cited the rising costs of construction as a reason for not delaying the construction of the new bridge. The cost of the full-bridge is estimated to cost from RM640m (US$170m) to RM1,500m (US$400m). The Malaysian Works Minister Datuk Seri Samy Vellu has also confirmed that work had started on a RM30m (US$8m) road linking the Johor causeway with the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex, where the proposed bridge will begin.
Singaporedoes not seem to have decided on whether to go ahead with the bridge. Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo has mentioned in Singaporeparliament last year that Singaporewould only agree to the proposal “if there was a balance of benefits to both sides.”
The most recent official Singaporeresponse (given on 30 Jan 2006) was that “Singaporeprefers not to react to media reports. Singaporehas sent a Third Person Note to KL [Kuala Lumpur] asking for Malaysia's clarification of these media reports before we decide on our response.”
If the Malaysian plan goes ahead, a new 1.45km eight-lane highway bridge (about 25 metres above the Straits) will be built, curving and descending gently to link up with the causeway from Singaporeat the border between the two countries. It will appear “crooked.”
More than 100,000 people cross the crossway each day and congestion has been a nagging issue. Although there is another road link between SingaporeandMalaysia-the second link, it is relatively under-utilised because motorists using this second link have to pay toll and the causeway leads directly to the Johor city centre.
In 2002, the then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir suggested replacing the old causeway with an overhead bridge which would allow small crafts to sail under it. However, talks with Singapore hit a snag as both sides were unable to agree on other issues which were then also under discussion such as the pricing of water (from Johor to Singapore), the location of the CIQ facilities in Singapore and the use of Malaysian airspace by Singapore.
Bilateral relations between the two countries were badly affected due to the stalemate of these talks between 2000 and 2001, and a host of other issues.
In 2003, relations between the two defrosted after Badawi succeeded the retiring Mahathir. However, there was no breakthrough in negotiations for the next 2 years although there was resolution of the dispute over Singapore's land reclamation off Malaysiain April 2005. Bilateral relations also improved gradually.
It is still too early to judge the impact on bilateral relations arising from this episode. This issue has also arisen previously in September 2005 when it was reported that Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi had given “thumbs up” to the new bridge. Officials from both sides subsequently met in September and October but again, there was no resolution.
However, judging from the tone of the current news coverage, it is unlikely that bilateral relations will be as adversely affected as before. The current restrains shown by the media on both sides is a sharp contrast from the on-off “megaphone diplomacy” in 2000- 2002 when the governments of both sides played to public sentiments through the media.
Still, it seems that there is still a long road ahead before both sides can agree on how to bridge their differences.
“Malaysiasays it's proceeding with new bridge to S'pore to avoid higher costs.” (Associated Press, 29 Jan)
“Move to build half-bridge will not hurt bilateral ties: Najib” (The Straits Times, 28 Jan)
“Yes bridge will be built” (New Straits Times, 27 Jan)
“Move lauded but calls for talks to go on” (New Straits Times, 27 Jan)
“Singapore`puzzled' by KL's scenic bridge” (The Business Times [Singapore], 27 Jan)
“New Bridge Go-Ahead” (New Straits Times, 4 Sept 2005)