Unlikely rival to Strait of Singapore

By Dr. Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli, associate professor, Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia; research associate, Asian Institute of International Affairs and Diplomacy (AIIAD), Universiti Utara Malaysia. 

The proposed ‘crooked’ bridge project over the Strait of Johor, meant to allow commercial ships to sail through, was scrapped by the Malaysian government on April 12, 2006. In 2018, there was a plan to revive it. 

Would replacing the causeway with a crooked bridge ultimately reopen the Strait of Johor to international navigation?

Singapore is no longer completely an island when the Johor-Singapore 1,056 meters-long Causeway was opened for traffic in 1924. Being the first land link between the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, it was considered an engineering marvel at that time. 

The Johor Causeway is now one of the busiest border crossings in the world with 350,000 travelers passing through it daily.  

The Johor Causeway does possess some disadvantages. Unlike the Johor Second Link Bridge that allow ships to pass underneath, the Johor Causeway practically sealed the Johor Strait from shipping activities. 

Vessels sailing from the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, one of the top 20 busiest container ports in the world, will have to go around Singapore to get to the Port of Pasir Gudang on the other side of the strait, adding to time of voyage.

Singapore did not agree to replace the causeway with a bridge when Malaysia proposed it decades ago. As a result, Malaysia initially planned to go ahead to replace the Malaysian side of the causeway with a crooked bridge.

The elevated height of the proposed crooked bridge would allow passage for smaller vessels, reopening the Strait of Johor to maritime navigation after 88 years, in what used to be a dead-end Strait.

In addition, questions also arose with regards to the status of the water pipes – whether or not the pipes could be replaced to make way for the construction of the proposed bridge. Nevertheless, this project was cancelled in 2006. 

There are two other crossings alongside the Causeway. The Johor-Singapore Second Link Bridge spanning across the Strait of Johor was opened for traffic in 1998. The highest point of the bridge is 25 meters, allowing vessels to pass through underneath. 

At the moment, Malaysia and Singapore are building the Johor Bahru-Woodlands Rapid Transit System (RTS), a rail bridge connecting the two nations across the Strait of Johor. The RTS bridge is not designed in a way allowing large ships to pass underneath.

If the crooked bridge is to be revived, will Malaysia gain economic benefits from it? 

Can the Strait of Johor rival the already established, busy but congested Strait of Singapore?

The Strait of Johor is about 50 kilometers long with a maximum depth of 12 meters. There are a few seaports located along the Strait of Johor. The Ports of Johor, Tanjung Pelepas, Pasir Gudang and Tanjung Langsat are located on the Malaysian side whilst the Ports of Tuas and Sembawang in Singapore. 

This existence of these ports indicates that the Johor Strait is navigable despite its limited depth. 

There are no seaports in both Malaysian and Singaporean territories within the western segment of the Johor Strait, particularly between the Johor-Singapore Second Link Bridge and the Johor Causeway.

The limited height of the Johor-Singapore Second Link Bridge would not allow ships with air draft of more than 25 meters pass through. Most vessels calling at Ports of Pasir Gudang and Tanjung Langsat possess air drafts of more than 25 meters. 

The tiny stretch of navigable waterway would result in maritime traffic congestion in the Strait of Johor, causing ships to prefer taking the Strait of Singapore route instead.

In addition, reclamation works undertaken in coastal areas at the city of Johor Bahru may have altered the average depth of the Johor Strait of just around 12 meters. The existence of fish farms along the Strait may also hamper navigation. 

The construction of the crooked bridge has to be complemented with constant dredging works to ensure the Strait of Johor is safe for navigation.  

International law dictates ships can enjoy the unimpeded right of transit passage when navigating through straits used for international navigation. Unless vessels call at its port, the coastal State (in this case, Malaysia and Singapore) is not allowed to levy payments. This is different with navigation via maritime canals like that of Suez or Panama where tolls can be collected.

Even if Malaysia has successfully built the crooked bridge and thus opening the Strait of Johor to international navigation, will ships eventually call at its ports or navigate onward to other final port of destination?

If Malaysia is adamant to continue with the plan to replace its side of the causeway with a crooked bridge, the government has to reconsider whether or not the amount of money spent on this project can really transform the Strait of Johor to become an equally convenient route as that of the Strait of Singapore. 

As the Johor Strait remains unlikely rival to the Strait of Singapore, is this project really worthy of massive investments?

Photo credit: iStock/TkKurikawa. Singapore-Johor Causeway.

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