‘CROOKED bridge is back in consideration.' The WhatsApp message together with a forwarded news article from my aunt appears on my phone screen just as I’m about to leave on an errand in town. Despite being a Singapore permanent resident for a large part of her adult life, my mother's third sister is still very much a Malaysian at heart and constantly keeps abreast of the latest developments happening back home.
After a flurry of text exchanges lasting more than a quarter of an hour, it becomes obvious that the idea, which was first mooted by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad back in 1996, has once again captured the attention of the public on both sides of the causeway and raised questions about its possible implementation.
After successfully placating her concerns with Tun Mahathir's reasons of easing traffic congestion in Johor Bahru, improving water quality and reducing pollution in the Straits of Johor, I end our chat with the notion that the proposal may not even see the light of day and we shouldn’t be putting too much thought on the matter just yet.
Our lengthy discussion inevitably piques my interest in the history of the Causeway. Putting my earlier intention to settle some outstanding utility bills at the post office on hold, I head back indoors and make my way to my study. Before long, the reference texts start hurtling me back to the middle of the 19th century.
During those early formative years, Johor Bahru was just a small town and its main economic activities were concentrated along the banks of Sungai Segget. This strategic location near the Johor Straits quickly attracted the attention of Chinese immigrants who came by the droves to establish businesses catering to the needs of the growing number of pepper and gambier plantations further inland.
By the 1880s, Johor Bahru became a bustling free port, handling all sorts of local produce including timber, tin, tapioca, areca nuts, coffee and tea. The increased waterway traffic and the congestion caused by the fleets of Malay perahus, sampans and tongkangs prompted the authorities to broaden Sungai Segget and increase the number of landing steps and jetties that served as embarkation and disembarkation points for the general public.
The Johor Steam Ferry Boat Company owned the largest and most frequented jetty on the eastern bank of the river, known then as Pier Kuala Segget. Commencing from 1875, the company ran services that connected Johor Bahru and Woodlands and brought in loads of holidaymakers from Singapore who wanted to enjoy the scenic landscape or try their luck at the numerous gambling farms in town.
Among the more favoured hotels at that time was the Johore Hotel. Built by the seafront at around the turn of the 20th century, the hotel had air of grandeur and opulence rivalling even those of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang and Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
BOOMING FERRY SERVICE
The large number of tourist arrivals coupled with the increase in cross-straits goods traffic, brought about by the completion of the railway line between Penang and Johor Bahru in 1909, put a heavy strain on the ferry service. Within two years, the demand was so high that the ferries had to be operated round the clock. The frequency continued to increase exponentially and reached its peak in 1923 when more than 11,000 trips were made annually.
The high traffic volume and heavy maintenance of the ferries led the colonial authorities to start looking for a more permanent alternative. After much deliberation, the director of public works in the Federated Malay States (FMS), William Eyre Kenny, suggested the construction of a rubble causeway across the Johor Straits in 1917.
This cheaper construction method was preferred over that of a proper bridge considering the exorbitant cost of steel and the long term expenses involved to maintain a 1,056-metre elevated road and rail link between Johor and Singapore.
The matter was exacerbated by uncertainties brought about by the ongoing First World War in Europe. The authorities were unwilling to commit to expensive construction projects as they might be called upon to at any time to contribute to Britain's ongoing war effort.
CAUSEWAY IDEA APPROVED
Kenny secured the greenlight after reiterating that the foundation for a causeway was much easier to lay especially on the soft clay soil at the proposed site. Approval was cemented when he showed that there were ample rubble and crushed granite available at reasonable prices from the Pulau Ubin quarry and, should that prove inadequate, there was always the huge cache of construction grade stones at the Bukit Timah mine that could be called upon at a moment's notice.
By June 1919, the building contract was awarded to Topham, Jones & Railton, a London-based engineering firm that had done extensive work in the Singapore harbour. Construction, based on the designs prepared by Goode, Fitzmaurice, Wilson & Mitchell, a firm of consulting engineers, began a month later at the Johor end of the straits. At that time, the project was considered the largest and most technically-challenging engineering venture in Malaya.
A ceremony was held to mark the laying of the causeway’s foundation stone on Apr 24, 1920. It was officiated on-board the Sea Belle by Sultan Ibrahim on behalf of Johor and Governor Sir Laurence Guillemard who acted for Straits Settlements. The yacht was moored in the middle of the straits next to two barges filled with 500 tons of granite rubble.
At midday, prayers were offered by the Archdeacon and the Johor Mufti. After the latter poured sacred water which comprised air doa selamat, air tolak bala and air mawar into the Johor Straits, Guillemard pulled on a silk cord and released the first granite rubble load into the water. All the ships in the vicinity sounded their sirens to mark the momentous act.
A sharp two-year deflationary recession experienced by many countries worldwide, just 14 months after the end of World War I, eventually led to widespread public criticism of the project and its crippling cost. The outcry was so serious that it nearly forced the authorities to halt construction.
JOHOR STRAITS SEALED
Fortunately, the project was allowed to run its course and, by June 1921, foundation work at the Johor end came to an end. Next was the construction of the Causeway’s superstructure which began simultaneously from both sides of the Johor Straits. Work progressed smoothly until the two ends met in June 1923. The straits was effectively sealed up by a huge granite bank, 3,465 feet long and 60 feet wide on top, wide enough to accommodate a double railway track, road, pedestrian walkway and water pipeline.
All of a sudden, a ray of sunlight reflecting off the shiny surface of a protective plastic folder close to the window catches my attention. Upon close inspection, I find that it contains several vintage photographs showing views of the causeway several months after the railway section was opened on Oct 1, 1923.
While studying the well taken images with the help of a magnifying glass, I noticed something interesting. There’s not a single ferry in sight. Apparently, the completion of the causeway rang the death knell for their services! Intrigued, I quickly return my pile of books to find out more about the changes brought about by the newly-built Causeway.
Officially completed on June 11, 1924, the Causeway’s five year construction period involved more than 2,000 workers, both locals and Europeans and consumed about two million cubic metres of granite and stone.
Its official opening ceremony was held in Johor Bahru on June 28, 1924. The occasion was attended by royalty and dignitaries, including the Sultan of Selangor, the Yang diPertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan and the Raja Bendahara of Perak. The Johor Military Force provided the guard of honour and gunners from Singapore fired the salute while three Fairey seaplanes made their dramatic flypast overhead.
In his speech, Guillemard referred to the Causeway as a great feat of engineering. He made a special reference to the electrically-operated lifting bridge on the Johor side which was able to elevate part of the railway and road covering the width of the lock channel to allow seagoing vessels to pass through. After the ceremony, Guillemard, the Malay rulers and other dignitaries drove across the Causeway in a motorcade of 11 vehicles, and by doing so, opened it to public use.
The completion of the Causeway brought many changes to Johor Bahru. The Straits of Johor was no longer a sea lane and Sungai Segget's importance as a harbour was greatly eroded. The road and rail became a cheaper and more convenient alternatives to transport goods across to Singapore.
The Causeway also gave impetus to the development of a comprehensive road network in Johor where main trunk roads were completed by 1931. It connected Johor to the established trading networks in Singapore as well as other major world markets. The Causeway also enhanced Johor Bahru's strategic importance as the gateway into the Malayan Peninsula.
The age of exponential growth came to an abrupt stop when the winds of war started blowing towards Malaya at the end of 1941. After failing to stop the advancing Japanese Imperial troops, the British commenced their complete withdrawal across the causeway on the evening of Jan 31, 1942.
The next morning, after the last man had marched through, two caches of naval depth charges were set off. The first wrecked the lift-bridge while the second left a gaping hole in the middle of the Causeway which also severed the water pipes. Later that afternoon, the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Johor Bahru. When the Japanese finally surrendered three years and nine months later, the conclusion of the war didn’t mark an end but, instead, the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Causeway.
On February 1946, the returning British troops replaced the Japanese-made girder bridge over the gap in the Causeway with two Bailey bridge extensions and re-laid the railway tracks that had been cannibalised by the Japanese to support their campaign in Burma. A decision was made to permanently close the lock channel and lift bridge as there was insufficient vessel traffic to justify their high maintenance cost.
As life slowly returned to normalcy in Johor Bahru, so did traffic growth on the Causeway. By 1949, it was estimated that more than 27,000 lorries used the link each month. Ten years later, its saw the daily commute of more than 30,000 people and 7,000 vehicles.
When the Federation of Malaya achieved independence on Aug 31, 1957 the government planned to initiate immigration controls at the Causeway but that was eventually reduced to strict identity card checks.
The link between Johor and Singapore once again made headlines in the days leading up to the formation of Malaysia. In 1962, Tunku Abdul Rahman warned that the causeway may have to be closed to keep Malaya safe against extremists and potential hostile attacks should Singapore fail in its merger bid with Malaya.
Although Tunku's threat didn’t materialise, three years later, the Causeway was effectively turned into a border connector between two countries following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965.
Immigration checkpoints were built on both sides, with passport controls implemented on the Singapore side from June 1967 and on the Malaysian side three months later. Since then, the Causeway has undergone a series of upgrades to accommodate its ever growing traffic volume.
Returning my reference materials back to their rightful place in the cupboard, I ponder the situation facing the Causeway today. A lot has been said about this long protracted issue by those on both sides of the divide but I feel that many other factors still have to be deliberated before Tun Mahathir's dream for a six-lane S-shaped elevated highway towering over half the Johor Straits can eventually turn into reality.