Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Johor's woes

The Malaysian state of Johor just can't get its act together.

According to New Straits Times today, an half-hour rain yesterday was enough to turn the Jalan Tampoi stretch at Kampung Ungku Mohsin into a river. This is just the tip of the iceberg on problems in the southern Malaysian state bordering the affluent Singapore.

The federal government has not been able to resolve two main problems plaguing Johor and Singapore -- the sale of Johor water to Singapore and the construction of a bridge to replace the dam-like causeway linking the two countries.

As a result of the inability of the two governments to come to terms on water pricing, Johor continues to sell raw water to Singapore at 3 Malaysian sen per thousand gallons until 2011 and 2061 under two agreements. Singapore sells back a small portion of treated water to Johor at subsidised rates.

And instead of trying to secure Singapore's blessing to jointly build a bridge, Malaysian PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called off the bridge project completely. The reason? Badawi's cabinet could not agree with Singapore's requests for the so-called "balance of benefits" -- the right to use Malaysian airspace and buy Malaysian sand for Singapore's reclamation purpose -- despite better bilateral relations after the departure of Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

While Malaysia should have planned the bridge project better, Singapore's position is not so admirable either. This sentiment was well captured in famous Singapore A-level student Gayle Goh's blog, in which she basically criticised Singapore's selfishness in its foreign policy.

In particular, she also cited her school's dialogue session with Singapore's Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan, who was asked by a student as to why Singapore was unwilling to help to build the bridge between Malaysia and Singapore as a gesture of goodwill between neighbours. His reply: "You want to build a bridge? Sure. But make it worth my while."

Gayle's enlightened response to the episode:

This mentality of self-interest -- which, let's call a spade a spade, is really selfishness -- sounds well and good until we begin to consider a few things. Firstly, I'm quite concerned that Singapore's selfish tendencies may just come round to bite us in the behind at some point. Our reluctance to do anything about Burma means that ASEAN is weakened from within, and our reputation as a region tarnished overseas. Our small-mindedness about the matter of goodwill and ties between Malaysia is not only downright obnoxious, but spells out ill omens for diplomatic and trading ties between the nations in the future. And let's not even talk about what will happen when the water agreement expires. With regards to Iraq? Our insensitivity to our neighbours' needs and our willingness to 'suck up to the US', which he essentially conceded, is hardly going to endear ourselves to Islamic radicals in the region.

The two bilateral problems alone will remain unresolved for some time to come. As a result, Malaysia continues to lose out on water revenue. And without the integrated bridge and transportation hub blueprint, Johor will never be able to resolve all its traffic problems.

In the meantime, the state continues to be plagued by other problems -- crime, traffic snarl, corruption, poor city planning, a narrow channel of water with one of highest toxic levels in the world, highest inflation in the country due to massive inflow of the stronger Singapore dollar, and a whole colony of underground industries to cater to Singaporeans and others (DVD piracy and prostitution).

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