On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Scrapping the bridge the best solution

IT WAS the best solution. Enough time and energy have been wasted by Malaysia and Singapore officials on the proposed RM1bil controversial bridge to replace the 82-year-old Causeway.

We have been talking about it since 1996, when the idea was mooted by then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

A decade is a long time and after the endless rounds of negotiations it does make sense to call it off if both sides are heading nowhere.

Let's be honest about it.

The idea to build the bridge sounded like a good idea, at first.

It was supposed to have helped to ease traffic congestion in Johor Baru, as well as improve water quality and reduce pollution in the Tebrau Straits.

A modern bridge that would allow ships to pass underneath, it seemed attractive and many Malaysians liked the idea, hoping it would bring more economic benefits to the state.

But too many demands have come into the picture, clouding the issue at hand.

Singapore has long wanted a decision on the bridge to be part of a package deal on unresolved bilateral issues.

In 2002, when the water issue was separated, Singapore called off talks on the bridge plan.

The following year, Malaysia announced that it would build its half of the bridge unilaterally.

Despite the posturing of some Malaysian politicians, it is unlikely that Malaysia could simply start to build a bridge through unilateral actions.

It would have invited serious legal implications.

We can expect Singapore to take the case to the International Court of Justice, and despite Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar's optimism, not many legal experts share his views.

Threatening to go ahead with the construction could well be a negotiating tactic on our part to pressure Singapore but the facts were staring at our faces.

We are not sure whether our gung-ho politicians knew what they were talking about when they flexed their muscles, but Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is just being practical.

Bilateral negotiations to build the bridge, yes, but to proceed with unilateral action does not seem possible.

Building a bridge or demolishing the Causeway is a bilateral decision, it is that clear.

Whether the Malaysian part was called a "scenic" or "crooked" bridge, it would be built on half of the 900m Causeway.

Although it involves a mere 450m, the bridge had to be curved and extended more than thrice the distance, to 1.4km, so that heavy vehicles could cope with the maximum incline of 4.2 degrees.

Suddenly it wasn't so attractive anymore from a political, scenic or engineering perspective.

Presumably, the negotiations had proceeded because Singapore was prepared to talk "if there was a balance of benefits for both sides."

In the end, the benefits seemed to tilt heavily to the island republic. The conditions were just impossible to be met.

No Malaysian can accept the sale of sand to Singapore for a reclamation project for 20 years or to allow its jetfighters to use our air space as a trade off for it to agree to the proposal.

It is like asking Malaysia to give up its sovereignty.

There are sections of Malaysians who are angry at the decision to cancel the proposal, with some implying weaknesses on the leadership. But even if the Malaysian part of the bridge was built we would have the other half of the Causeway problem to deal with.

No one would be surprised if more demands were imposed by Singapore later.

What is the point of spending billions in taxpayers' money only to end up with more problems?

Let's not forget that there is still the RM2bil Second Link, which was opened with much fanfare in 1998.

Then Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said "the construction itself is testimony to the achievements that we can attain by putting our hearts and minds together."

In the case of the bridge, there were obviously no hearts and no minds together.

It is unfortunate that Singapore has still not learned to be a good neighbour, continuing to be preoccupied with its uncompromising attitude on only gains. Sometimes you have to lose a bit to gain.

In the case of dealing with neighbours, one must sometimes be prepared to sacrifice more in the interest of the long run.

If Dr Mahathir had adopted an unfriendly attitude towards Singapore, Abdullah took a different approach.

He was determined to mend ties, but Singapore has not seized the opportunity.

The bridge issue should also serve as a lesson to our politicians. They should think before they speak.

Clashing statements, indecisiveness, back-pedalling and constant change of policies does not help our image as a serious, efficient country.

The public should not be left confused or even caught unprepared on major issues affecting the nation.

Building a bridge between two countries is not as straight-forward as it looks.

Singapore can talk about the environmental impact of the proposed bridge but extracting a huge amount of sand can also be environmentally disastrous to Johor.