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Out Of The Cage: It turned out to be a bridge too far

Comment by Khairy Jamaluddin* (From New Straits Times Online of April 15, 2006)

GOVERNMENTS the world over will only consider a volte-face in policy as a last option. The one thing that political leaders want to avoid is a U-turn, a track back, a change of mind. The public consequently attaches great value to politicians who stubbornly stick to their guns come what may.
Perhaps hardheadedness is an overrated political virtue. The British economist John Maynard Keynes, who was famous for not holding the same opinion for long, once remarked: "When the facts change, I change my mind."
Similarly, a leader must be bold enough to change his mind if the premise upon which his decision was made has changed.
This is evident in the decision made by the Government not to proceed with a bridge of any kind to replace the Causeway with Singapore after months of political signalling that we would go ahead with a new structure on our territory.
Why the about-turn, especially after some very strong and categorical statements from senior government leaders that work on a curved half-bridge would commence shortly?
We knew the Singapore Government was not keen on a bridge replacing the Causeway. The last thing they want is easier access across the Johor Strait for Singaporeans to spend their money in Malaysia.
They know that a new bridge combined with the new Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex would considerably alleviate traffic woes for the 70 million users of the Causeway every year and make the trip up north all the more palatable.
A bridge would have also been a catalyst in promoting Johor as a cargo, logistics and transshipment gateway.
They have also been aware for some months that the Prime Minister has earmarked southern Johor as a new growth centre for services, strategically positioning it as a competitor to Singapore which has natural limits to growth and a richly valued property market.
With this in mind, they could not allow any project — like the bridge — that would accelerate the development of southern Johor. But obviously they couldn’t afford to be so obvious in showing their hand. Instead, they strung us along for the ride, feigning interest and even talking about a "balance of benefits" for both sides.
Of course, Singapore’s idea of a "balance of benefits" is the scale tipping over on their side. In return for agreeing to co-operate on a straight bridge, they literally asked for our bumi and langit.**
They knew their request for sand and airspace was a politically loaded proposition which would be met with tremendous resistance by the Malaysian public.
They knew that in the case of airspace, for instance, there was no "balance of benefits" — Malaysians would regard it as encroachment into our sovereign territory while for Singapore it would be, in the words of their media, merely a "good-to-have convenience... like (a) sheltered walkway".
With Singapore’s hemming and hawing on the straight bridge, the only conceivable way forward was to build the curved bridge in order to replace the Causeway on our side, provide a sea lane through the Johor Strait and link traffic with the new CIQ complex on Bukit Chagar. And for a few months, that was our default position that precipitated a war of words across the Causeway.
All that, of course, changed with the announcement on Wednesday that there would be no bridge. Many have attributed this to public sentiment — that Malaysians did not want to have to bargain with their territory for the new bridge. Even the Prime Minister said that he listened to the views of the people before making this decision.
That is, of course, true. But public pressure does not fully explain the strategic importance of the decision to abandon the curved bridge. By definition, the curved bridge is a unilateral decision. If there was a bilateral agreement the bridge would be straight.
Any unilateral decision involving another country would have exposed us to a reaction from the other side.
In this case, unilaterally building a bridge, even on our side, would have most probably resulted in Singapore bringing this matter to the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, arguing that it is a demolition of a common facility joining two countries.
While the Foreign Minister is confident that we would have a strong legal case, it would serve to delay construction, with the possibility that the millions of ringgit spent on works would be wasted if there were an unfavourable decision. The unilateral option would have also eventually led to a bilateral face-off because cutting and relocating the pipes that take water from Johor to Singapore would require the latter’s consent.
Imagine building the bridge and not getting an agreement to relocate the pipes. Another potential waste of money.
Finally, apart from the road and pipes that are built onto the Causeway, there is the matter of our railway line. As with the water pipes, a new railway connection requires Singapore’s agreement.
If we fail to get an agreement with the Singaporeans on a new railway connection, our trains will be forced to stop at Johor Baru.
This could possibly lead to the closure of the Tanjung Pagar railway station and the loss of other Malaysian railway land in Singapore based on the Points of Agreement signed in 1990.
In other words, the unilateral option would have not just exposed us to the possibility of international arbitration, but it would have compromised our national interest and given Singapore leverage over us.
If they can ask for our bumi and langit for a straight bridge, imagine what their demands would have been had we begun spending money on building a curved bridge only to find that their agreement was needed for the water pipes and railway to be connected.
By then, we would not be able to simply walk away from the project by merely compensating the contractor. By then the sunk cost would be considerable, effectively strait-jacketing us in our negotiations with Singapore.
So yes, it was a case of our leaders listening to us. But much more significantly, it was a strategic decision based on careful reconsideration.
It was an about-face because doing otherwise would have meant negotiating from a position of weakness on other outstanding issues.
When dealing with slippery opponents, hardheadedness is the worst strategy. Call their bluff, change your mind, walk away, even float like a butterfly. Now they know it’s game on.

*The writer is an investment banker and deputy head of Barisan Nasional Youth.
**Singapore reportedly wanted Malaysia to sell sand for its reclamation works and to allow its jetfighters to use the Malaysian airspace as a trade-off for it to agree to the proposal. (From a Bernama report dated April 12, 2006)

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