Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop

Raja Petra Kamarudin

Mahathir’s ex-aide criticises the official explanation for scrapping of the project

By Carolyn Hong
The Straits Times (Singapore) 26 April 2006

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry has issued a 17-page statement to explain the bridge saga in hopes of closing the issue, but its critics see it as proof that Kuala Lumpur has let Singapore run rings around it.

Mr Matthias Chang, a former aide of Tun Mahathir Mohamad, said yesterday that it was ‘clear evidence’ of Malaysia being outflanked and out-manoeuvred by Singapore. “What is worse, our negotiating team is at pains to justify Singapore’s position, and appeal to us, the citizens, to appreciate the sensitivities of Singapore,” he said.

He was lambasting Ambassador-at-large Fuzi Razak, who issued the statement on Monday to explain why the government had to scrap the bridge project. Tan Sri Fuzi, the ministry’s former secretary-general who led Malaysia’s negotiating team, was asked by the Cabinet last week to reply to Tun Dr Mahathir’s criticism of the decision.

It is not clear how much support the former prime minister has on this issue as the majority of politicians, including those from the opposition, have supported the government’s decision. In the statement, Tan Sri Fuzi detailed the sequence of events and explained the legal complications in going ahead without getting Singapore’s agreement for the project.

The Foreign Ministry also refuted the contention of former Prime Minister Mahathir that Singapore had agreed to the bridge in 2002. It explained that the agreement was revoked when Malaysia decided to stop negotiating the outstanding issues as a package. Singapore had regarded its agreement to the bridge as a concession in the full package, the Foreign Ministry said. Singapore’s position was confirmed in a diplomatic note sent in November 2004.

Mr Chang, however, did not agree. He was involved in the legal preparations for the negotiations from 2001 until the time Tun Dr Mahathir retired in October 2003. He contended that Singapore had unilaterally revoked its agreement on the pretext that Malaysia had dropped the package approach. He slammed the Malaysian negotiators for allowing Singapore to do so and, further, to negotiate on the issues of sand and airspace when the package approach had been abandoned.

“By linking airspace and a new factor (sand), Singapore has insidiously circumvented the single issue approach, and trapped Malaysia into adopting a limited package approach,” he said. Mr Chang also suggested that the Malaysian Foreign Ministry was holding back pertinent information, saying that the information disclosed was less than 10 per cent of the total negotiations.

Tun Dr Mahathir, who is in Britain on holiday, has not commented on this latest development. But opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said he believes that the majority of people agree that the government did the right thing by calling off the bridge project. He, however, noted that the “Mahathir group cannot be ignored”.

Barisan Nasional backbenchers club president Shahrir Samad said the people always react emotionally to issues involving Malaysia and Singapore. “Some accept the explanation, some don’t, but some don’t want to,” he said.

The Malaysia-Singapore ‘Crooked Bridge’ issue: who is lying?

Somebody is lying. Either it is Dr Mahathir or it is the Malaysian government. And it is the right of Malaysians to demand answers as to who it is that is lying.

Nevertheless, basically, most people share the view that the flip-flop or on-off manner the issue was handled reflects very badly on Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration which, you could say, does not know whether it is coming or going. This also demonstrates the insecurity and poor decision-making of the Malaysian government while the Singapore government appears very cool in the way it is handling this matter.

Malaysians at large are no longer ignorant of the facts behind many issues like in the past. The Internet of course can be partly blamed for this, that is if ‘blame’ is the right word to use here. Furthermore, the government-controlled mainstream media has also been very generous in informing the Malaysian public about current developments, unlike in the past where much used to be censored or blacked-out. So Malaysians today are better-informed and have reached a level where they can analyse for themselves various issues.

Even if the mainstream media tries to hide the facts, people can still obtain them from the Internet. So it is very difficult to hide information from the public and the government has no choice but to come clean before the people find out for themselves. Also, Malaysians now look for not what is being told, but what is NOT being told. Therefore they look for the hidden messages in any government announcement. Thus the government has no choice but to reveal all before the people come to their own conclusions on what they perceive as true and false.

The ‘Crooked Bridge’ issue is proof of the power of the media and the government’s silent acknowledgement that the media can no longer be ignored. This is the significance of this issue as well as many others that have surfaced over the last two or three years since Mahathir retired.

We must remember: when Dr Mahathir was having his war of words with Singapore, the mainstream media (both in Malaysia and Singapore) published the exchanges of letters between the Malaysian and Singapore Prime Ministers. These are still available in the public domain and can be easily accessed if you search the Internet using Yahoo or Google. Malaysians still remember this quarrel between Mahathir and Singapore, which happened not too long ago.

In October 2002, Singapore already agreed that the bridge be built. Singapore also agreed that the Causeway be demolished by 2007, which is next year. Therefore the issue is a non-issue and for all intents and purposes has already been settled. Further to that, it was agreed that in the event the water pipes need to be relocated (say when or if the Causeway is demolished) Malaysia only needs to give Singapore six months notice. Singapore has no legal right to protest or oppose the relocation of the water pipes. On top of that, the cost to build the new pipeline will be entirely borne by Singapore.

All this had already been agreed in writing and settled in 2002. The statement by the Malaysian government about the ‘legal implications’, and the Singapore statement about ‘an act of war’, are therefore not valid. Malaysia has every legal right to demolish its half of the causeway, build its half of the bridge, and relocate the water pipes by giving Singapore six months notice. There is nothing Singapore can do about this. That is not the problem.

The real problem here is, after Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as Prime Minister and Syed Hamid Albar took over the negotiations with Singapore, Singapore asked Malaysia to consider throwing in the supply of sand to Singapore plus allow the Singapore Air Force more flights over Malaysian airspace as part of the bridge package. During Mahathir’s time it was already agreed that each issue will be treated as a separate issue and will be discussed on its own merits and not as part of a package. Singapore had agreed to this. But Syed Hamid (probably with Abdullah’s blessing) agreed to Singapore’s request for sand and more flyovers to demonstrate that Malaysia is a ‘good neighbour’. In fact, it is not even clear whether the sand issue was Singapore’s idea or Malaysia’s idea. Did Singapore ask for it or did Malaysia suggest it?

Later, they found out that if Malaysia supplies the sand that Singapore wants, then this would raise legal implications (the ‘legal implications’ Abdullah spoke about but did not reveal what they are).

Firstly, Singapore’s land reclamation is causing serious ecological problems to Malaysia’s marine life and is affecting the livelihood of Johore’s fishermen. Secondly, the reclamation in the Tebrau Straits would make the waters too shallow/narrow and ships would not be able to navigate these waters. They would instead have to sail around Singapore. This would make the Johore port less attractive compared to the Port of Singapore. In terms of economics, Malaysia would eventually lose out to Singapore.

Now, if Malaysia decides to take this case to the international court in an attempt to stop Singapore from reclaiming land facing Malaysia (they are free to do so at the bottom part of Singapore that is not facing Malaysia as that is their right and it does not affect Malaysia) how can Malaysia have a strong case when Malaysia is supplying the sand that Singapore is using in its reclamation programme? And what would happen if it is proven that the sand supplier (or suppliers) is (are) linked to the powers-that-be, or worse, are actually members of the government? How would Malaysia explain this?

This is the ‘legal implication’ Abdullah meant but which he did not explain in detail.

In short, Malaysia blundered. We tried to ‘baik sangat’ with Singapore and later found out the mistake we made. The only way to get out of the agreement to supply sand to Singapore is to cancel the bridge. Since the supply of sand is tied to the bridge agreement, if the bridge is cancelled, then the supply of sand can also be cancelled.

But they cannot say that the issue is solely about the supply of sand. This is too sensitive an issue. What if someone starts spreading stories that the sand supplier is, Heaven forbid, related to Syed Hamid (like his brother)? Or what if someone starts spreading stories that one of the sand suppliers is a member of Abdullah’s family by marriage? You know how people like creating stories. Would that not be disastrous? So, instead, they raise the issue of SAF planes flying over our airspace. This will stoke nationalist sentiments, especially in simpleminded Umno Melayus who love waving a keris over their heads and go into a frenzy. But they must hide the fact that US planes have more than 1,000 flyovers a year. People might ask: why US can and Singapore cannot? The Umno Melayus might drop the keris on their own heads in shock and disbelief.

It must be remembered that the supply of sand was never part of the bridge agreement in Mahathir’s time. It was Abdullah who agreed to it later. The bridge could have gone on without agreeing to the sand supply clause. But now that it had been agreed, they cannot get out of it unless the bridge itself is cancelled.

We must also remember, around mid-March 2006, Shahrir Samad and other Parliamentarians asked Works Minister Samy Vellu to guarantee that the bridge would be built without further delay. Samy Vellu assured Parliament that the bridge would go on and that nothing will prevent it from being built. In mid-March all the Parliamentarians wanted the bridge. Then, suddenly, three weeks later, they cancelled the bridge and all the Parliamentarians ‘sokong sebulat suara’.

This alone shows that something is wrong. The Johor Menteri Besar was not happy that the bridge was being cancelled. But he was instructed to make a public statement that he too agrees that the bridge be cancelled — after he had enthusiastically agreed to it being built just weeks earlier.

It is clear the government does not know what it is doing. One day it makes one decision and the next it reverses this decision. Many are beginning to wonder whether the present government knows how to run this country. People no longer accept what the government says and all its explanations are taken as lame excuses. The bottom line is: the government silap and is now trying to cover its mistakes. Well, we are not allowing this to get buried that easily. We want to know who the sand suppliers are. Can we have their names please?

Actually, the bridge is not the issue. Ada pun takpe, takde pun takpe. It does not matter either way. It is the way the on-off decisions are made which is worrying. And what we read in the media seems to give this impression: that the government reverses its decision not long after making them. The government certainly runs this country in a most flip-flop fashion.

Sheesh….can Abdullah even decide what he wants for breakfast?