To Beijing, it might be just another overseas project - but to Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, the mainland's help in the building of the Penang Second Bridge is providing a crucial electoral lifeline. It was unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that Beijing would provide M$1.7 billion (HK$3.9 billion) in soft loans to finance the 24km bridge linking Penang Island with mainland Malaysia. A mainland state-owned company, China Harbour Engineering Company, will build the M$2.7 billion bridge with UEM Engineering, a Malay-majority conglomerate. A large chunk of the subcontracting work will go to local Chinese-owned companies, officials said yesterday. When finished, the bridge will be the longest in Southeast Asia and will ease congestion on an existing 13.5km bridge, built with Korean help in 1985. It will also boost the premier's standing in Chinese-majority Penang ahead of a general election. Only recently, the opposition had labelled the project a white elephant, with not a single pile sunk a year after it was announced to great fanfare. Securing Beijing's help has changed all that. 'Abdullah has silenced his critics and scored a major political victory by persuading China to fund and help construct the bridge,' said political scientist Shamsul Baharuddin. 'China's participation is part of Malaysia celebrating 50 years of independence this year ... this is a significant event.' The Star daily reported yesterday that Mr Abdullah directly approached Premier Wen Jiabao for help when the two met late last year. Chinese-language newspapers that had criticised the bridge delay now describe Beijing's involvement, which will be signed on Friday, as a 'breakthrough' and a 'great victory' for Mr Abdullah. Chinese voters, who make up 30 per cent of Malaysia's 12 million voters, are unhappy that the government has refused to abolish affirmative action policies that favour Malays over other races. The government is hoping the Penang Second Bridge project will help win over the Chinese vote. In 1974, a ground-breaking meeting between former Malaysian prime minister Abdul Razak and Mao Zedong is credited with swinging Chinese support to the government and helping it win big in the polls.