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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Bridge That Stirs Troubled Waters

A Bridge That Stirs Troubled Waters
M. Bakri Musa


[From the Sun Thursday March 9, 2006]


The water in the narrow Strait of Johore is usually calm. In fact it is unhealthily stagnant, as the causeway had effectively dammed the waterway and stopped the natural ebb and flow of the tide across it.

This will soon change if Malaysia were to proceed with its planned suspended bridge. The bridge threatens to stir the water, literally and figuratively.

The new structure would not increase capacity, as it would still have the same number of lanes as the existing causeway. Even if the lanes were increased, the bridge would not appreciably increase the capacity, as the other (Singapore) half of the causeway remains the same.

The suspended bridge could markedly improve the marine ecology, as there would once again be free flow of tide across the strait, at least on the Malaysian side. That would reduce the stagnancy and the stench, as well as enhance the esthetics and the marine environment.

If that is the reason for the bridge, then I would applaud its proponents for their ecological consciousness.

That objective could however be achieved just as effectively and at a considerably lower price by burrowing a series of wide tunnels. This retrofit could be done without disrupting traffic.

There are already a few culverts, but they have silted up for lack of maintenance, as are the drains and rivers in town. There is no assurance that the more expensive bridge would not be similarly neglected. Even with the new bridge, the strait would still be blocked because the existing causeway would remain to carry the railroad. Transferring the tracks onto the crooked bridge would be the height of folly; I have yet to see a curved railroad bridge.

Of course the much cheaper tunnel alternative would entail correspondingly smaller profits, and, let us also openly acknowledge, less generous “commissions” and “Kopi Oh!” money. This more than anything else is what drives this common sense-defying and exorbitantly expensive project.

Underwater tunnels, being not visible, would not give rise to bragging rights. There would be no showpiece monument for visitors to behold as they drive across.

I do not dismiss this vanity aspect to the bridge. A beautiful suspended bridge on the Malaysian half would be a spectacular contrast to the drab causeway on the Singapore side, remnant of the utilitarian, low budget, and “good enough for the natives” colonial mentality.

Singaporeans, being residents of a First World city, would not be easily impressed with the suspended bridge; their reactions would likely be one of detached bemusement. They and other foreign visitors would more likely be impressed with Malaysia if our customs and immigration counters were more efficient, and clean.

Considering our culture, I do not minimize the “show off” factor to the new bridge. Drive through the exclusive residential areas of Klang Valley, and we see palatial mansions behind gilded gates and ornate fences. Step outside the well-manicured and immaculately maintained grounds and the stark reality of urban Malaysia hits you: roadside brushes uncut, rubbish all over, and drains plugged.
Yet, for a fraction of the price of these expensive gates and brick fences they could have the drains covered and thus effectively expand their usable land and simultaneously eliminate the stench. If they would jointly maintain their common public areas instead of having to depend on the city, the enhanced esthetic, health and other benefits would far outweigh the costs, not to mention the increase to their property values.

The owners of these ostentatious residences are also likely to be the ones responsible for our public polices. So it is not surprising that they would want to build an expensive bridge to show off to visitors when the money could have been better spent sprucing up the waterfront and cleaning up the deadly polluted Sengget River.

If there were to be a bridge, let it be right across, replacing the entire causeway. Apparently, Singapore’s opposition is over the cost, especially in relation to the expected benefits. If that were the case, make the project subject to the realities of the marketplace.

One way would be to invite potential concessionaires and allow them to charge toll fees. This would spare both governments the expense, with the risk borne entirely by the operators and the revenues paid by users on both sides. Another would be to privatize the project, with the two neighbors owning equal shares and the project funded through private financing to be repaid by user fees. To ensure transparency and to get the best price, open the bidding to international competition.

A joint venture with Singapore on this bridge might teach Malaysia a lesson or two, like how to get the best contract and run an efficient public utility. The most important lesson would be how much cheaper a project would cost if it were subjected to rigorous competition and spared of corruption.

If either option were to happen, the new bridge would truly symbolize the physical, social, economic and other bonds linking the two nations.]

This half bridge proposal has already created considerable anxiety across the causeway. There are those who think that anything that would provoke such reactions in Singapore must automatically be good for Malaysia.

This is an exception; scraping the project would spare Malaysia the unneeded expense and at the same time improve relations with our neighbor.

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