A bridge too far-fetched?

The 6-lane scenic bridge could perhaps reduce the pain of those commuting daily between Malaysia and Singapore

By ZAINAL ALAM KADIR / Pic By BLOOMBERG

In June 2010, the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, made a very compelling plea to the federal government to reconsider the construction of the scenic bridge, a project mooted by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1996, in place of the Johor-Singapore Causeway.

The Sultan said the bridge, which was cancelled in 2006 by the then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, could be the missing piece that would complete the Johor Baru Sentral (also known as JB Sentral) — an integrated transport hub located at Bukit Chagar between Jalan Tun Abdul Razak and Jalan Jim Quee, right smack in the heart of Johor Baru.

I am with him. No, not because I am from Johor and that I have to agree because he is my Sultan, but I personally believe that the project needs to
be completed for all the right reasons.

If you’re not from Johor and have very minimal contact with my state, I strongly believe that you do not really have the right to criticise the project.

Think of all those poor souls who have to cross the Causeway everyday to eke out a living, and you might have an inkling of how important the bridge is.

Visit any part of Iskandar Malaysia, the 2,216.3 sq km economic corridor in the southern part of Johor that stretches from the most western end of Kukup to the furthest tip of Tanjung Pelepas, and you’d get the big picture.

In between the tips are the thriving townships of Pasir Gudang, Permas Jaya, Iskandar Puteri, Tanjung Langsat, as well as the ever-so-busy Johor Baru city centre — all waterfront locations that have the potential to be even greater.

If the waters are clean and clearer, that is.

The more discerning visitors who have been to Puteri Harbour in Iskandar Puteri might tell you how disappointed they were with the water quality at the marina.

When I was there several months ago, I could sense that the place was rather lifeless, to put it mildly.

Except for perhaps LegoLand Malaysia, that seems to be the lifeline for most of the businesses there, Iskandar Puteri does not seem to be as thriving as it was envisioned to be.

Well, would you park your expensive yacht (picture the Equanimity) or fancy boats in a marina that is menacingly dark and murky?

“Why is the water not that clear?”

I once asked a senior management personnel who was attached to one of the area’s main developers.

“The water is stagnant. If we don’t have the Causeway, we might have a better looking marina,” he responded flatly.

If you ever get the chance to visit Johor Baru, I implore you to open your eyes a little and observe the details that could make the city even more majestic.

Take a walk towards the City Square and check out the beautification project that has been going on along Sungai Segget.

You have to find the river first, though — which might be futile as it is now covered with slabs of concrete.

For the uninitiated, the 4,280m Sungai Segget starts from the current Johor Baru Chinese Cemetery, through the downtown of the city. Sad to say, before it was covered up, it had a nasty reputation as one of the foulest-smelling rivers in the country.

The beautification project, awarded to one major developer along with the refurbishment of several older buildings, as well as the erection of newer commercial properties in the area, proved to be pretty tricky.

“There’s nothing much we can do to clean the river. The water is not moving…the only way for us to return the river to its old glory is to replace the Causeway with a proper bridge,” one of the developer’s senior personnel told me during a chance meeting.

I’d also like to suggest that you take a drive to Senibong for a hearty seafood dinner.

As you savour your meal, take a deep breath and try your best to enjoy the entire experience (you might also see the glittering lights of Singapore from the eatery).

Chances are, your seafood might not be the only aroma you’d enjoy.

Yup, you guessed it. Everyone there would nonchalantly point their fingers towards the Causeway — a relic, so to speak — that has certainly seen better days since it was opened in 1923.

Oh, did I tell you about Danga Bay?

I used to enjoy going there before the current heavy commercial developments took over the area, replacing the earlier idea of a marina which included a nice boardwalk that allowed visitors
to take a stroll along the waterfront (something that people in Kota Kinabalu would enjoy these days).

Since the bridge project was scrapped, not many really see the whole point of keeping the waterfront for the ordinary folks to enjoy, I guess.

In its place now are tall condominiums and commercial buildings that are blocking the once panoramic view that could be enjoyed as one travelled along the Sultan Iskandar Highway heading to the north.

Still, I always imagined standing on one of the balconies in one of those glorious modern buildings looking out towards Selat Tebrau, or the Straits of Johor if you may, marvelling at the sunset with boats and smaller vessels passing by as they move towards the east with no Causeway blocking the waterway.

There are more examples, but I think you get the point.

So, what really happened to the scenic bridge (or the crooked bridge, as how many would describe it)?

When Dr Mahathir mooted the idea, it was aimed at improving traffic flow for both sides, while allowing stagnant water to flow and improve the marine environment.

The bridge is also high enough to let ships sail across Selat Tebrau, which would be a major boost for Johor’s two ports as well.

Singapore had never agreed to the complete demolition of the Causeway without other bilateral issues also being sorted out as a package.

Dr Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah, had first tried to go ahead with a full bridge, while allowing Singapore’s military to use the Johor airspace.

However, due to pushback against the idea, Abdullah in 2006 returned to the concept of the scenic bridge (as he called it), to be built only in Malaysian territory.

He made an amazing turnaround less than three months later, announcing that the entire bridge project would be abandoned despite the estimated RM100 million already committed, citing public concerns over the sale of sand to Singapore and the use of airspace by the republic.

The bridge is not that long — 1.4km to be exact — and I reckon it would not be too hard to build (compared to the many other complicated mega projects being engineered and constructed all over the country).

The six-lane bridge could perhaps reduce the pain of those commuting daily between the two countries, and perhaps increase the number of traffic into Johor Baru which is certainly good for business.

The piling work was already done when Abdullah announced the cancellation, so I guess it is just a matter of sticking to the original plan and hitting the home-run.

Since construction materials have been exempted from the Sales and Services Tax, I guess the cost would not balloon as much.

For the record, I am from Muar, currently dubbed as the cleanest town in South-East Asia and located in the northern part of Johor.

If you’ve been to my beautiful birthplace, you’d notice how clear our great Muar River is and how scenic life is there.

I am looking forward to the day I can say the same about Johor Baru.

  • Zainal Alam Kadir is the associate editor of The Malaysian Reserve.