Stop pushing for the crooked bridge

Ever since Dr Mahathir Mohamad rejoined Umno, he has been interfering in the new government under Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. Once again in the media and now, in his own blog, he is pushing hard for building the crooked bridge. 

This time though, Mahathir is playing his last trump card by appealing to our Malaysian sense of patriotism and nationalism and by trying to whip up anti-Singaporean sentiments. This is clear from his first sentence on the subject as well as his last sentence as found in his blog posting on April 20 on ‘The Crooked Bridge’.

His first sentence notes that ‘The Star reported that Chinese businessmen in Johor Baru want the crooked bridge to be built’ and his last sentence asks: ‘Does the government need to ask Singapore for permission to build the now desirable crooked bridge? Is Malaysia free to do things in its own territory? Are we really independent? I wonder.’

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The public should note that the latest Mahathir blast on the bridge contains no clear or strong justification for building the crooked bridge – no economic reason, no technical reason and most important of all, no balanced analysis of the pros and cons of building the bridge.

The blog posting may, in fact, be construed as just a naked appeal to primordial sentiment. Hopefully, the new PM will not allow himself to be bullied by Mahathir but will stand his ground on this issue.

However, should the pressure from the Mahathir camp continue to grow and become difficult to ignore, one way of defusing it is to have full public disclosure of the crooked bridge project, its history, the major and minor players who have been involved in it, the findings of various feasibility studies dealing with it, various cost-benefit scenarios and not least of all, the financial ramifications of the project, including the payment of more than RM100 million ringgit to the contractor for the decision to stop the proposal – a payment made despite the fact that the contractor did not do any physical construction work on site.

Let the public be provided with all the facts of the project (much of which has not been available because of the operation of the Official Secrets Act) and let the public (especially competent professionals) help in the decision after a full and fair appraisal.

If the crooked bridge is to be built, it must only be done because it is doable and in the best interests of the country and not just because the former prime minister wants it. As an old engineer, let me touch on some of the insurmountable difficulties involved in building the bridge that should be part of the appraisal process when considering the crooked bridge construction.

1. One of the objectives for breaking up the existing causeway is to allow ships to bypass Singapore port which will automatically affect Singapore’s economy. That is why Singapore is not giving us the permission to break their portion of the causeway. As a result, Mahathir’s lobbyists have proposed building the crooked bridge.

2. The bridge must be high enough to allow ships to go under the bridge. For such a short span, the gradient will be too steep for any train to climb. Moreover, trains cannot negotiate sharp bends.

3. I remember reading that this matter was discussed in the Singapore Parliament. It was pointed out that if Malaysia did not maintain the railway for longer than six months, Singapore could claim the right of all the railway land in Singapore territory.

4. I also remember that when we tried to stop Singapore’s reclamation work, the matter was referred to the international court. The court decided that both countries have to agree for any development project within a certain distance from the boundary.

I doubt if we can break up half of the existing causeway on our side without Singapore’s agreement.

As a final point, it is clear that in view of the global recession’s serious impact on the Malaysian economy, the government must be more careful in spending the hard-earned money of our Malaysian taxpayers.

This is not the time to pour money into resurrecting white elephants or ego-building projects. All major projects need to be implemented only after careful and rigorous cost -benefit evaluation studies that should be open to public scrutiny.

The practice of awarding large contracts without open competitive tenders such as was done in the case of the initial contract for the crooked bridge must not be continued.

If an open and competitive tender system is the norm in the country’s procurement, I am sure that Mahathir’s cronies will stop pestering to build the crooked bridge because they may not secure the contract if they have to compete with other contractors.

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