SINGAPORE — Remnants of concrete of what would have been part of a half-bridge project to replace Malaysia’s side of the Johor Causeway, lie almost forgotten near the checkpoints in Johor Baharu.
Concrete poles for the proposed bridge still stake up against the sky, still proclaiming a presence, albeit one that never was — and never will be — because Malaysia had decided to shelve the project.
The scrapping of what was often referred to as the “crooked half-bridge” project on April 12, marked the closure in the chapter of one of the most contentious issues in the oft-prickly Malaysia-Singapore relations.
Malaysians debated the decision for months, and can still be heard till today, most recently from the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Iskandar, who said the 81-year-old causeway should be demolished to allow ships to pass through the Tebrau Straits.
But for Malaysia and Singapore, the issue is settled, thus putting to rest the long drawn-out negotiations about whether the causeway should be replaced with a new bridge — or if Singapore was reluctant to participate in the full bridge project, with a half-bridge on Malaysia’s side of the causeway only.
Singapore had signalled objection to the half-bridge, saying Malaysia could not unilaterally tear down its side of the international facility and warned of “serious implications” should Malaysia go ahead with it.
As for the full bridge, Singapore had asked for trade-offs — the sale of sand to the republic and the use of Malaysia’s airspace for its jet fighters, which Malaysia said was politically difficult to agree to.
In short, the bridge — straight or otherwise — was a no-go.
Singapore “gentlemanly” accepted the decision with Foreign Minister George Yeo saying “it was not a matter of victory or defeat”.
“Whatever we’ve worked on will be to our mutual benefit. We always negotiated on the basis of mutual benefit to both sides, and I’m quite sure we’ll be able to find other areas where we can cooperate for our mutual benefit,” he said.
“We are working together on so many things. Our economic links are strong, our people-to-people links are good, and in Asean and on various regional projects we’ve cooperated very closely,” said Yeo.
Singapore-Malaysia issues had more or less plateued thereafter. But in September, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, speaking before an international audience at a forum on good governance, made a remark that aroused the anger of Malaysian leaders and the public.
In an unprovoked statement, Lee, 83, said among other things, that the way Malaysia and Indonesia treated their Chinese shaped the attitude of both countries towards Singapore.
He had said: “My neighbours both have problems with their Chinese. They are successful, they are hardworking, and therefore they are systematically marginalised, even in education.
“And they want Singapore, to put it simply, to be like their Chinese — compliant”.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wrote to him, asking for an explanation, which Lee later replied saying he was sorry for the “great discomfort” his remark had caused to Abdullah.
At times the debate over both issues became heated in Malaysia. Johor Umno, for instance, asked the Malaysian government to cancel all projects that would benefit the republic and to stop considering Singapore’s interests in the development of the multi-billion ringgit South Johor Economic Region (SJER).
The “compliant Chinese” controversy seemed to have now been cast aside after Lee’s expression of regret. Lee himself played down the issue, saying it was just a minor setback — a “blip in the horizon” — in the relations between both neighbours.
In between cancellation of the bridge and the “marginalised Chinese” remarks, were some other developments, notable among them are the proposal by YTL Corporation to establish a bullet train service between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and to open the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore air route to budget carriers.
The proposed bullet train service will cut travel by land between the two destinations to 90 minutes from about nine hours by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) trains currently — a proposal which the Malaysian government said was willing to look into.
Both countries are also in discussions on the proposal to liberalise the aviation sector.
“We are looking at coming up with a concrete decision by year-end,” Transport Minister Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy said on Nov 9. He, however, declined to give details, only saying a detailed study on the matter had been completed.
The lucrative KL-Singapore route is currently dominated by Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines, but budget airlines AirAsia of Malaysia and Tiger Airways of Singapore had expressed interest to operate the route — the sooner the better, both airlines said.
During the course of the year, a controversy over the acquisition of a 30 per cent controlling stake in Malaysia’s healthcare provider Pantai Holdings by Singapore-listed Parkway Holdings had also been resolved.
Pantai owns two government-concession companies, Fomema and Pantai Medivest. Questions were raised in Malaysia about the wisdom of having the two companies being under the control of a foreign entity.
In August, the Malaysian government’s investment arm, Khazanah Nasional Bhd, announced that its subsidiary — Pantai Irama Ventures Sdn Bhd — had entered into an agreement to buy Parkway’s 30.68 per cent stake in Pantai.
Khazanah would then sell a 49 per cent stake in Pantai Irama to Parkway, a deal that would still see Khazanah maintaining a majority equity ownership in the company.
As the year was nearing its end, Singapore announced the winning bid for its second casino resort on Sentosa Island.
Malaysia’s Genting International-Star Cruises consortium was the winner with its S$5.2 billion “Resorts World at Sentosa” proposal, beating two other strong contenders — Kerzner International-CapitaLand consortium, and Eighth Wonder.
Deputy Prime Minister Prof S. Jayakumar said Genting’s proposal was the most compelling overall.
Just days earlier, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had expressed hope that Malaysia could clear the “mixed signals” from Johor Baharu about Singapore’s participation in the Iskandar Development Region (WPI) project.
Perhaps arising from the comment, Malaysia took the initiative to invite Singapore’s delegation headed by National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and Minister of State for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran to brief them about the WPI on Dec 11.
With the invitation to Johor Baharu, and the successful bid by Genting in Singapore, perhaps the signal is now much clearer for both sides.
From bridge issue to air route, and from cross-border acquisitions to hornet’s nest-stirring remarks, the year 2006 is anything but quiet.