Mahathir questions Malaysia PM over bridge

Thursday, April 13, 2006

(Reuters) - Malaysia's sudden decision to scrap its plan to build a bridge to Singapore drew fire on Thursday from outspoken former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is shaping as a strong critic of the current administration.

Criticising his handpicked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir said Malaysia should not bow to pressure from its neighbour, which has long opposed the plan.

"We were about to start but I retired," he told reporters. "If I didn't leave, it would have started 2-2 1/2 years ago.

"We have been taking into account Singapore's views ... it doesn't want the bridge ... so we have to accept it," added Mahathir, whose remarks have become increasingly strident as Abdullah's government appears to pay little heed.

The bridge was a pet project of Mahathir, who retired in 2003 after 22 years in office.

"Lots of people on both sides saw the futility of the bridge construction, but I suppose rationality prevailed on the Malaysian side finally," said political scientist P. Ramasamy.

"Anyway the Malaysians now have to eat their own words, the penalty for going along with Dr Mahathir and his mega projects."

The opposition said the cancellation of the project was a costly lesson for the government not to engage in "reckless commercial adventurism".

Mahathir, 80, unveiled the unusual plan for a bridge to replace its half of the 82-year-old causeway in 2003 after Singapore rejected an original plan to build a full bridge.

Despite keeping to his promise to take a complete break from power, Mahathir's frequent comments on government policies ensure he stays in the public eye. He has questioned other decisions of Abdullah's government, including state-controlled carmaker Proton's sale of its ailing Italian motorcycle unit, MV Agusta, and allowing Australia to join a club of East Asian economies.

Abdullah's cabinet abandoned the plan in a surprise move on Wednesday. Abdullah said the decision took into account Malaysian public sentiment over the demands Singapore had made in exchange, particularly for the use of Malaysian airspace and supplies of sand, as well as possible legal and construction difficulties.