Labuan Corporation (LC) Chairman Datuk Suhaili Abdul Rahman said he will do his best to ensure the island retains its free port status, even when it is linked by a bridge with the mainland.
"It does not mean that once we have a bridge, it's bye-bye to the free port status. We can still keep it by having CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine) facilities at the entry point of the bridge," he said.
In the case of Penang, it did not have CIQ facilities and the free port status was withdrawn, he said, adding the other reason was Penang was sufficiently populated and industrialised.
"But it's a different story for Labuan. We have a good reason for having both the bridge and free port."
Suhaili also noted that Labuan is an island state, a Federal Territory (FT) and the only free port in Borneo.
The Prime Minister's announcement on Thursday that the Government would consider building the Labuan-Sabah bridge has sparked fears in some quarters here that the bridge would spell the end of the island's free port status, which is viewed by many as still important for the growth of the tourism industry.
Labuan has been a free port since 1884 but was terminated in 1942 with the Japanese invasion. The status was reinstated by the British on September 1, 1956, and it is due to the status that the island's barter trade industry boomed for several decades.
Commenting on the announcement on the bridge, Suhaili said it was a gift by the Government to Labuan and Sabah in appreciation for the big support the Barisan Nasional had enjoyed in the last general election.
Suhaili expects the current cost of the bridge to be more than RM1 billion, considering that the Penang bridge completed in 1995 had cost RM850 million and running for 13.5km with 8.4km over the sea.
He also said he was also overjoyed with the Prime Minister's announcement because he had been aggressively pursuing the proposal since becoming Member of Parliament in 1999.
He managed to have the FT Ministry "resurrect" the bridge project.
Another delightful moment was in 2006 when the visiting Yang di-Pertuan Agong said here that efforts should be pursued to convince the Federal Government on the bridge.
Currently, University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) is undertaking a feasibility study and it is expected to be ready by October, following which the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) would decide.
Suhaili expects the bridge to be included in the 10th Malaysia Plan, which commences in 2011. "If all goes well, we would be driving on the bridge five years or so."
He added that Labuan would gain tremendously from the bridge because the island would be "plugged" into a Borneo (Sabah/Sarawak/Brunei) population of about five million.
Labuan would also be able to use the Kota Kinabalu container port for haulage of trailers to the island for export and import purposes.
The proposal for a bridge between Labuan and the mainland was first mentioned in the Labuan Development Plan (1997-2015).
It was suggested as a private sector initiative and the estimated cost of the project was RM550 million, with the bridge connecting Membedai here to Membakut in Sabah, a distance of about 15 nautical miles.