Malaysia's Crooked Bridge|
rears its ugly head once more
Ben Bland* in The Asia File (Daily Telegraph Blog posted on April 20, 2009)
Of all the harebrained schemes that have ever been dreamt up by egotistical political leaders, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's plan for a "crooked bridge" linking peninsula Malaysia with Singapore surely ranks among the most bizarre (see artist's impression).
And, as the 83- year-old Mahathir has drifted back onto the political scene after his ally Najib Razak took the reins of power last month, so the vexed issue of the crooked bridge has reared up once more.
The existing main causeway linking northern Singapore with the city of Johor Bahru in Malaysia is far too narrow and is plagued by traffic jams and long delays, particularly at the weekend and on public holidays.
Mahathir, who showed a persistent fondness for massive infrastructure projects during his 22 years in office, wanted to build a much wider bridge over the straits of Johor but could not convince a Singaporean government that he had often purposefully antagonised to reach agreement with him.
His proposed solution was to unilaterally build a new bridge over the Malaysian half of the straits, which would connect to the old Singaporean causeway at the halfway point.
Because Mahathir also wanted to boost Malaysia's burgeoning ports by allowing ships to pass under the bridge instead of being forced to re-route all the way round Singapore, the bridge would have to be curved in shape to allow for the road to gain the necessary height in such a short distance.
About a week ago, reports started surfacing in the Malaysian newspapers, which are almost all controlled by members of the ruling coalition and their allies, of calls for the crooked bridge plan, which was jettisoned by Mahathir 's successor Abdullah Badawi, to be resurrected.
That got people talking and now Mahathir has fanned the flames himself in a rather cryptic post on his blog entitled "The Crooked Bridge", which is a response to the calls for the project to be revisited.
"Does the Government need to ask Singapore for permission to build the now desirable crooked bridge?" he writes. "Is Malaysia free to do things in its own territory? Are we really independent? I wonder."
As this article on Asia Sentinel (which I also write for) explains, Mahathir's return to the political fold has a number of implications, including the very real possibility that some of the cash from Malaysia's massive fiscal stimulus plan (9pc of GDP) is channeled into the sort of grandiose projects that he champions.
The major concern about such "visionary" plans in Malaysia has always been that the juicy government contracts that are generated end up in the hands of those closest to the politicians in power rather than those best placed to complete the project on time and on budget.
Hence, the old joke about the crooked bridge being designed to represent the true nature of Malaysia-Singapore relations: Singapore is straight and Malaysia is crooked.
*Ben Bland is a freelance journalist based in Singapore. He will be traveling around the region looking at the impact of business on people, power and politics. He was previously The Daily Telegraph's stock market reporter.