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KQ: New Johor Bridge: A Mega Folly
By Kim Quek

8/9/2001 8:45 pm Sat



Mahathir has finally got a reluctant Singapore to agree to what UMNO leaders have been clamouring for years: the replacement of the Causeway with a bridge for vehicles and a tunnel for trains across the Singapore-Johor Straits.

While the proponents of this project are jubilant, the ordinary folks in Johor are cool to the news. The reason is simple. The private groups that have pushed for this project may be mentally counting their bonanza and golden eggs, but Johoreans have started to worry about their pockets getting burnt.

The costs for this project will run into billions, which will eventually be borne mainly by Johoreans through toll collections. Unlike the case of the Second Link, which they have the option not to use, they will be forced to use the new bridge this time, as the present Causeway will be removed in due course.

Their worries have now turned into grouse. They angrily ask: why should we build a new bridge and a tunnel? What's wrong with the present Causeway?

The honest answer is: there is nothing wrong with the present Causeway. We are building the new bridge because the leaders think that the bridge is more beautiful than the Causeway, especially with waters flowing underneath.

If we have to spend a few millions to improve the aesthetics, no one will complain. But when the costs run into thousands of millions of ringgit, as in this case, it is a serious affair that should call for the consultation of the entire nation, especially when the main benefit is only one of aesthetics.

Looking at the enormity of the works and the astronomical sums involved, one should be able to dismiss this project without second thought, when weighed against the meager benefit derived. Let us take a glimpse of the works involved.

For the bridge construction, the works involved are reclamation for the bridge as well as for the new custom, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) complex totaling over 100 acres, construction of the bridge proper (up to mid-point) and the CIQ complex, revamping the traffic system in Johor Bahru City with new interchanges to link the bridge to the present end point of the North South Expressway some 8 km away, installations of new water pipelines to Singapore to replace the current ones at the Causeway, and land acquisition.

As for the tunnel, the Menteri Besar of Johor has indicated that it will start from Kebun teh in Johor Bahru and end in Kranji Rd in Singapore. The distance is 8 km. A new CIQ complex in Kranji and a new railway station in Johor Bahru will be constructed, for which land will be acquired.

The cost of the tunnel, which will be borne entirely by Malaysia, was estimated by the project proposer Gerbang Perdana at RM 1.5 billion in a press report on 10.02.2001. The total costs for the completion of the entire project including the demolition and removal of the Causeway will easily exceed 2,500 million ringgit.

Additionally, Johor Bahru residents will have to endure heavy inconveniences to their daily life for several years while the project is under construction.

What is the return for this colossal investment and huge inconveniences? Answer: better scenery at the Straits.

Now, even the claim of aesthetic advantage is brought into question, as Singapore has already indicated that it will reclaim land up to near the mid point of the bridge. Combined with the reclamation of even larger areas on the Malaysian side to accommodate both the CIQ complex and the bridge, the already narrow channel of water will almost disappear, thus significantly reducing the beauty of the Straits. Besides, this extensive reclamation will damage the coastline in the vicinity through siltation.

Keeping in mind that a bridge is beautiful only when it is enhanced by an expansive stretch of waters, many would argue that the Straits looks more beautiful with the present Causeway rather than when it is spanned by the new bridge, which will be relatively short (for grandeur) and will be running over a narrow and distorted stretch of waters.

If the leaders advocating this project had been inspired by the beautiful bridges elsewhere, they may be in for some disappointment upon completion to find that our new bridge is no Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco or Harbour Bridge of Sydney.

Issues of aesthetics aside, the Menteri Besar of Johor has said that he expects the new bridge will give a boost to the economic development in the State.

There is no basis for this belief. Influx of tourists or investors will not take place because of the new bridge. It will happen only if there is an increase in tourist attractions or an enhancement in investment environment in the State. However, there will of course be the usual short-term boost to the construction industry and the related services in the Johor Bahru area during the construction stage.

The only possible justification for a replacement of the Causeway is when it has become a critical bottleneck with no possibility of improvement to the traffic flow. But this is clearly not the case. And the authorities have also wisely stayed clear of this issue, in view of the embarrassing fact that the Second Link (RM 2 billion), which has been in operation for three and a half years, is still unable to shake off its white elephant image. It is normally deserted, save during public holidays which are few and far between.

There is undoubtedly room for improvement in the present Causeway in that daily queues still form at the immigration check points at the JB end during peak hours. This is mainly due to insufficient booths opened for the vehicles and slowness in processing Singapore passport holders. With the imminent introduction of electronic smart cards for commuters and by putting more staff to cater for the peak hours, these irritating queues will become a thing of the past. And the present Causeway can provide smooth traffic for a long time to come, with the Second Link catering to the heavy vehicles and functioning as a back up to meet the traffic surge during holidays.

From any point of view, this project is a mega folly, and is symptomatic of Mahathir's leadership. It is a continuation of the crazy streak of wasteful mega projects that started in the 90s. Half a dozen of these projects were actually in the pipeline when the recent Asian financial crisis intervened and put a halt to them. If not for this timely intervention, Malaysia's economy would have been ruined.

Typically, these projects are characterized by paucity of rational input, prompted by greedy fortune seekers who prey on Mahathir's obsession for grandiosity and possibly his na´ve association of economic boom with big spending.

Lee Kuan Yew disclosed in a post negotiation press conference that the new bridge and the demolition of the Causeway had been 'the main sticking point' for sometime and that it had been a 'very difficult issue' for Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his cabinet.

Hence in retrospect, if our leaders had been more rational, this spoke in the wheel of negotiation for a package settlement between the two countries would not have arisen at all, and much valuable time in mutual economic co-operation would have been gained to the immense benefits of the people.

It is high time our leaders wake up from their stupor. Unless there is a fundamental paradigm shift in the mentality of our leadership, catastrophe awaits us in the advent of imminent globalisation in this IT age.

Kim Quek.

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