The Causeway

Singapore Infopedia

by Chua, Alvin


The Causeway is a road and rail link between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Completed in 1923, the 1.05-kilometre Causeway cost an estimated 17 million Straits dollars and spans the Johor Straits (also known as the Tebrau Straits). At the Singapore end is the Woodlands customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) checkpoint, while the Sultan Iskandar CIQ stands at Bukit Chagar at the Malaysian side.1 It was estimated in 2014 that more than 130,000 vehicles cross the Woodlands checkpoint each day.2

Background and conception
From the 19th century, Malaya’s commodities such as tin, rubber, pepper and gambier were largely shipped through the port at Singapore, a British colony. These materials were trans-shipped across the Johor Straits by ferry. The early 1900s saw a rise in cross-straits traffic of both goods and passengers, and the ferry system grew increasingly congested.3 

By 1911, the demand for the ferries was so high that they had to be operated round the clock.4 The volume of traffic and high maintenance costs of the ferries led the colonial authorities to search for an alternative system.5 W. Eyre Kenny, the director of public works in the Federated Malay States (FMS), suggested the construction of a rubble causeway across the Johor Straits. This proposal was preferred over a bridge as the authorities had considered the cost of steel and the maintenance costs of a bridge prohibitive.

In 1917, the British government commissioned consultant engineer Coode, Fitzmaurice, Wilson & Mitchell to prepare plans for the causeway, which were presented to the FMS, Straits Settlements (SS) and Johor governments in 1918.7 The proposed Causeway would be 1.05 km long and 18.28 m wide, with metre-gauge railway tracks and a 7.92-metre-wide roadway.8 It would also include a lock channel that allowed the passage of small vessels, an electric lift-bridge, water pipelines and flood gates to manage the water flow of the straits.9 The total cost of the project was estimated at 17 million Straits dollars, and was shared among the FMS, Johor and SS governments.10
In June 1919, the colonial authorities awarded the contract for the Causeway’s construction to Topham, Jones & Railton, a London-based engineering firm.11 Construction began in August, with the project considered technically challenging for its time.12 The Causeway was also the largest engineering venture in Malaya then. Construction started at the Johor end of the straits, where the lock channel was to be located, in order to minimise disruption to existing ferry services.13 The quarry on Pulau Ubin was re-opened to supply rubble and crushed stone, and the granite supply was later boosted by stone from the Bukit Timah quarry.14 

In April 1920, a ceremony was held to mark the laying of the Causeway’s foundation stone. Laurence Nunns Guillemard, then governor of the SS, conducted the ceremony from aboard the yacht Sea Belle, which was anchored in the middle of the straits.15 The occasion also involved the Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim II, and the mufti of Johor, who poured ceremonial waters (air doa selamat, air tolak bala and air mawar) into the straits. The ceremony culminated in the emptying of the first two loads of rubble containing some 500 tons of granite into the straits.16

During an economic depression between 1920 and 1922, public criticism of the project and its costs nearly led the FMS and SS governments to halt construction. The project continued, however, and in June 1921 rubble was deposited on the Johor end, allowing the construction of the Causeway’s superstructure to begin from both the Singapore and Johor sides. From January 1923, all shipping on the straits was diverted through the lock channel.17

The straits were sealed up by June 1923 and the Causeway was opened to goods trains from 17 September.18 The goods ferry service, which by that time was running around 11,000 trips annually, and the passenger ferry service ceased operations.19 On 1 October, the Causeway was opened for public use and the first passenger train that travelled across it arrived at the Tank Road station in Singapore at 7.41 am.20 A Causeway toll, which amounted to 40 cents for first-class carriage passengers, replacing the ferry fee, was introduced.21 

Officially opened on 28 June 1924, the Causeway’s construction involved more than 2,000 workers, both locals and Europeans, over nearly five years and used 1,599,900 cubic yards (1.22 million cu m) of stone.22 The Causeway completed Singapore’s rail connection to the mainland, and enabled the rapid rise of motor transportation between Singapore and Malaya.23

On 28 June 1924, the Causeway’s official opening ceremony was held in Johor Bahru, and a public holiday was declared there.24 During the ceremony, the Malay rulers and British officials were the first to be driven across it in a convoy of 11 motorcars, after which the roadway was opened for public use. A year later, the Johor Causeway Control Committee was formed to oversee its management and maintenance.25

Japanese Occupation and the post-war period
During the Japanese invasion of Malaya, retreating British troops set off two explosions on the Causeway on 31 January 1942. The first wrecked the lock’s lift-bridge, while the second caused a 21.33-metre gap in the Causeway. The pipelines carrying water to Singapore were also severed. The Japanese subsequently constructed a girder bridge over the gap before taking control of Singapore.26

After the return of the British, the Japanese-made girder bridge was replaced with two Bailey bridge extensions in February 1946, with the rubble of the demolished lift bridge cleared and the railway tracks re-laid. The lock channel and lift bridge were permanently closed as there was insufficient vessel traffic to justify the maintenance costs.27
During the Malayan Emergency (1948–60), a system of security checks was instituted for travellers using the Causeway. In 1949, it was estimated that more than 27,000 lorries utilised the Causeway each month. Within a decade, more than 30,000 people and 7,000 vehicles were estimated to cross the Causeway daily.28

Independence period
The Federation of Malaya became independent in August 1957 and the government was reported to have planned immigration controls at the Causeway.29 However, a system where travellers would require passes to cross the Causeway was replaced with a strict check of identity cards instead.30

In 1962, Tengku Abdul Rahman, then prime minister of Malaya, warned that if Singapore did not agree to the merger with Malaya, the Causeway might have to be closed as a means of keeping Malaya safe against extremists and potential hostile attacks.31 Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah) to form the Federation of Malaysia in September 1963.32

Following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in August 1965, the Causeway became the border connector between the two countries.33 Immigration checkpoints were built on both sides, with passport controls implemented on the Singapore side from June 1967 and on the Malaysian side from September.34 

In 1964, the Causeway was broadened. It was further widened in 1976, and again from 1989 to 1991, to accommodate the growing traffic. Customs and immigration facilities on both sides were also expanded several times, with these expansions being accommodated through land reclamation.35 After the Sultan Iskandar CIQ complex in Johor opened in December 2008, the Malaysian authorities prohibited travellers from crossing the Causeway by foot.36

Calls for replacement
Since 1996, there had been calls from Malaysian politicians for the demolition of the Causeway, starting with then prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad. This was later echoed by the Malaysian government for the Causeway to be replaced by a bridge in order to open the straits for shipping and for environmental reasons.37 The Gerbang Perdana consortium undertook the construction of a bridge in December 1998, as part of a project, named the Southern Integrated Gateway, costing RM$1.4–2.5 billion.38

After a series of inter-governmental negotiations, there was no agreement on the Causeway and in October 2002, Malaysia called off inter-governmental talks on the proposed bridge and later announced that it would unilaterally build the bridge.39 However, Singapore sent a diplomatic note in October 2003 stating that the Causeway could not be legally demolished without the agreement of both countries.40 Negotiations were restarted in 2004 and ended without agreement in April 2006.41 Malaysia also stopped construction of the bridge from the Johor end, citing legal complications involving the Causeway.42


Alvin Chua

1. Yap Yok Foo, “The Wild Days of the Causeway,” Today, 8 January 2001, 21; “Johore Causeway,” Straits Times, 1 October 1923, 10; Chua Lee Hoong, “A Case of Blackmail?” Straits Times, 18 October 1997, 66; “The Causeway,” Straits Times, 27 June 1924, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Daniel Chew, “The Legendary Johor Jams,” Jakarta Post, 30 October 1997 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Diana Oon and Yong Mei Fong, “Surprise KL Bid to  Replace Causeway with Bridge,” Business Times, 6 July 1996, 1; Neo Chai Chin, “It’s Human Traffic, Not the New System,” Today, 13 June 2011, 1 (From NewspaperSG); G. Alphonso et al., eds., The Causeway (Kuala Lumpur: National Archives of Malaysia/Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2011), 146–8. (Call no. RSING 388.132095957 CAU)
2. Goh Chin Lian, “Checkpoint security: No Room to Err,” AsiaOne, 25 February 2014.
3. Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; “Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 12, 19.
4. Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway.”
5. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 50, 53.
6. Chua, “Case of Blackmail?”’; “Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 53.
7. Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; “Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 54, 58.
8. “Johore Causeway”; “Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 58.
9. Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; “Johore Causeway”; “Johore Causeway,”  Straits Times, 28 May 1925, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Alphonso et al., Causeway, 59, 61.
10. Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; “Johore Causeway”; “Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 57.
11. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 62; Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; “Johore Causeway”; “Causeway.”
12. Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 57, 63.
13. “Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 58, 63.
14. “Johore Causeway”; “Johore Causeway”; “Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 68.
15. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 71.
16. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 77.
17. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 83, 89, 92.
18. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 92, 100; Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; “Johore Causeway.”
19. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 94.
20. “Johore Causeway”; Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 100–1.
21. Yap, “Wild Days of the Causeway”; “Johore Causeway”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 101.
22. “Johore Causeway”.
23. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 120.
24. Chua, “Case of Blackmail?”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 114.
25. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 119, 124.
26. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 130, 132.
27. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 132, 134; “Ex-Chindits Build Bailey Causeway,” Straits Times, 24 February 1946, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 134.
29. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 136; “Big Travel Clamp,” Straits Times, 9 August 1957, 1; “Causeway Ban Coming,” Straits Times, 11 September 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “No Causeway Passes,” Straits Times, 23 September 1957, 1; “Controls: Cabinet ‘Yes’,” Straits Times, 21 April 1966, 1; “‘Security Move…’,” Straits Times, 20 April 1966, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Tengku Warns Singapore,” Straits Times, 26 March 1962, 1; “Tengku’s Deadline,” Straits Times, 31 March 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 136; Up Goes the Flag,” Straits Times, 17 September 1963, 1; Felix Abisheganadan, “Hail Malaysia!Straits Times, 16 September 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 136; “The Causeway Is Still Open,” Straits Times, 15 August 1965, 1; “Trade Barriers Off,” Straits Times, 29 September 1965, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Alphonso et al., Causeway, 136.
35. Chua, “Case of Blackmail?”; Alphonso et al., Causeway, 138, 142–3.
36. Diana Othman, “Johor’s Border Crush,” Straits Times, 19 December 2008, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Oon and Yong, “Replace Causeway with Bridge”; “Peek Behind the Scenes,” New Straits Times, 25 April 2006; K. W. Lim, “Good Bridges Make Good Neighbours,” New Straits Times, 13 February 2006; L. C. Koh, “Bridge Project Will Help Curb Pollution,” New Sunday Times, 3 August 2003; Firdaus Abdullah, “Bridge to Replace Causeway,” New Straits Times, 2 August 2003; “Malaysia to Replace the Causeway with New Bridge,” Malay Mail, 15 February 2003; S. Jayasankaran, Kuala Lumpur – Second Span. Far Eastern Economic Review, 18 July 1996. (From  Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Carolyn Hong, “Malaysia’s Bridge Surprise,” Straits Times, 13 April 2006, 5; Cheong Suk-Wai, “KL: No Need to Replace Causeway Any Time Soon,” Straits Times, 30 May 2007, 3; Lydia Lim, “Causeway Must Go, Says Najib,” Straits Times, 18 March 2006, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
38. R. Nambiar, “69M Use Causeway Every Year,” New Straits Times, 8 February 2006; C. Venudran, “Bridge Project Gets Approval,” New Straits Times, 2 November 2000; R. Nambiar, “Work Begins Next Year on Bridge to Replace Causeway,” New Straits Times, 15 January 1999; Reme Ahmad, “Malaysia Plans to Replace Singapore Causeway,” Reuters News, 16 December 1998. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Lim, “Causeway Must Go”; Odd-Shaped Bridge to Replace Causeway,” Straits Times, 18 February 2003, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Hong, “Malaysia’s Bridge Surprise”; Lydia Lim, “Bridging Perceptions for More Clarity,” Straits Times, 4 February 2006, S10; Reme Ahmad, “KL to Go Ahead with Plans to Build Its Half of Bridge,”Straits Times, 27 January 2006, 3; Peh Shing Huei, “KL, S’pore Set for 4th Round of Bridge Talks,” Straits Times, 18 February 2006, H8 (From NewspaperSG); Odd-Shaped Bridge to Replace Causeway”; Eddie Toh, “Dr M Blames Odd-Looking Bridge on ‘S’pore Nostalgia’,” Business Times, 15 February 2003, 2 (From NewspaperSG);Peek Behind the Scenes”; “Malaysia to Replace the Causeway.”
40. Lim, “Bridging Perceptions for More Clarity”; Ahmad, “KL to Go Ahead with Plans”; Lydia Lim, “Talks on Causeway Bridge Ongoing,” Straits Times, 18 October 2005, 116 (From NewspaperSG); Hong, “Malaysia’s Bridge Surprise”; Peh, “KL, S’pore Set for 4th Round”; Peek Behind the Scenes.”
41. “Peek Behind the Scenes”; “Malaysia Axes Plan to Build Bridge to Singapore,” Reuters News, 12 April 2006 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Lim, “Bridging Perceptions for More Clarity”; Hong, “Malaysia’s Bridge Surprise”; Cheong Suk-Wai, “No Need to Replace Causeway”; Lim, “Causeway Must Go.”
42. Vinita Ramani, “Bridge Project Dies Unborn,” Today, 13 April 2006, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Radzuan Halim, “A Link That Divides,” Edge Financial Daily, 24 April 2006; “‘Plan Wouldn’t Have Worked Anyway’,” New Straits Times, 14 April 2006. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)


The information in this article is valid as of 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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