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Across the Straits of Johor: Shuttling between Neighbours



Image: Credits to WIKIPEDIA Simple English (Johor-Singapore Causeway) https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johor–Singapore_Causeway

In this Explainer, find out...

  • How has the Singapore-Johor relationship evolved?

  • How have transport policies bolstered Singapore-Johor relations?

  • What are the opportunities and challenges arising from these policies?


Introduction


On 28 March 2024, the number of travellers using Johor’s only two land checkpoints with Singapore daily hit a new high. At the time of writing, it is between 430,000 and 450,000, exceeding pre-pandemic levels at 400,000.¹ The Woodlands Checkpoint has also been touted as one of the world’s busiest land immigration checkpoints.²


This title bears significance, a testament to the close ties between people in Johor and Singapore. Beyond finding cheaper petrol to drive more miles, people on both sides often have shared histories, heritage and culture. Socio-economic policies have also created investment, employment and educational opportunities on both sides.


Embark on a journey (pun intended) with us to trace the development of this mutual relationship between Johor and Singapore. We then look at the transport policies that have bolstered this relationship, as well as the opportunities and challenges arising from them.


A Brief History


Understanding the history between Singapore and Johor is vital to understanding why both share a robust relationship.


Records of the relationship between Johor and Singapore date back to 1511 when the Portuguese first seized Malacca. Singapore prospered for about 100 years from the establishment of the Johor Sultanate. This ended when the Portuguese razed a trading post at the mouth of the Singapore River.³ 


In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles recognised Singapore’s potential as a trading hub due to its natural resources. The Treaty of Singapore was signed with the British-anointed Sultan of Johor, allowing the British to set up a trading post in Singapore. Singapore grew in prominence as a trading hub once again.


In 1963, Singapore merged with the federal states of Malaya to form Malaysia. This reflected the shared interests, economic and political, of both countries. For one, Singapore needed a bigger domestic market to create economic growth and jobs.⁴ Simultaneously, Singapore hoped to bolster its security against communist insurgency by combining military resources with the Malayan states.⁵ 


While the Merger did not last and Singapore became independent in 1965, Singapore, Johor and the greater Malaysia have become bilateral friends. Similarly, shared economic, security and cultural interests remain across the Straits of Johor.


Water Agreements


Imported water from Johor is one of Singapore’s most important water sources. To date, two agreements have been signed. The second Water Agreement, which will be in force until 2061, entitles Singapore to draw and use 250 million gallons of raw water per day from the Johor River. In return, Singapore must provide Johor with treated water up to 2% of the water we import.⁶


Collective Security


The Singapore Armed Forces conducts frequent joint military exercises with its Malaysian counterparts.⁷ In 2003, collaborative military exercises were extended to incorporate training in counter-terrorism, maritime securit, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.⁸ Notably, terrorism and piracy are salient threats to both Singapore and Malaysia, warranting a clear and strong response from both governments.⁹


Shared History, Heritage and Culture


Because of our shared historical experiences, Malaysians in Johor and Singaporeans arguably have many things in common. For instance, Peranakan and Malay cultures are prevalent in both regions, along with high frequencies of recreational travel between Johor and Singapore.¹⁰ One could also enjoy performances of Malaysian and Singaporean artists in both regions, which are one of the platforms for cultural exchange.¹¹


Transportation Infrastructure and Policies Across the Straits


To encourage economic activity and facilitate people-to-people interactions across the border, transportation infrastructure comes to mind. What are some of the related policies in this area? 


Faster Clearance and Immigration


Since March 2024, immigration clearance in Singapore has been made faster and more convenient via QR codes. Previously, passports for each traveller needed to be checked through. Time was lost and traffic became congested, causing commuters’ dissatisfaction. Now, using these QR codes could cut waiting times by at least 30 per cent.¹²


In the future, faster clearance could be extended to cargo clearance at land checkpoints. Many goods, including agricultural ones, are shipped along the Straits today.¹³ A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed in 2024 to reaffirm plans for a Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone. Under it, digitised processes for cargo clearance were proposed to improve economic connectivity between both nations.¹⁴


Travelling via the Causeway


Singapore and Johor are connected by two causeways, one at Woodlands and another at Tuas. Singaporeans commonly travel by private vehicles, including motorcycles and cars. Two key reasons for this are the level of comfort and safety compared to public transportation. However, traffic congestion along the causeway is common, resulting in longer travel times, sometimes more than an hour. Negative externalities such as noise and air pollution also afflict residents near the border.


Besides private transport, there are bus services operated by Singaporean firms SBS Transit and SMRT Corporation. Malaysian-owned Causeway Link also operates bus services between Singapore and Johor, affectionately identified by its prominent yellow colour. While they are cheaper than travelling by car, commuters face long waiting times at immigration checkpoints


Railway Infrastructure


Today, the fastest journey between Johor and Singapore is via the train service between JB Sentral in Johor and Woodlands in Singapore.¹⁵ One trip takes about five minutes. More commonly referred to as the Tebrau Shuttle, it currently makes 31 trips daily with each train ferrying up to 320 passengers. 


The upcoming Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) is slated to replace the Tebrau Shuttle. Compared to the Shuttle, the RTS can carry 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction.¹⁶ This will help ease congestion along the causeway as commuters can now use the RTS link as an alternative to buses and private transport. Apart from the faster speed, higher frequency and larger capacity, a single-point clearance immigration system will be implemented to expedite arrivals.¹⁷ Thus, travellers can avoid redundant clearance procedures and save time.


Besides the RTS, another planned project was the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR). However, Malaysia announced its desire to postpone the project in 2018, citing high costs and national debt.¹⁸ Later in 2021, the project was terminated.¹⁹  Most recently in 2023, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim suggested reviving the project.²⁰ Although the project’s prospects remain bright, some private investors and businesses are wary due to the absence of government funding.²¹


Fancy a Ferry?


Getting to Johor privately, by bus or the Tebrau Shuttle seems to be the only few ways so far. One less known means of transport is by ferry. One such service, launched in July 2022, is between Singapore’s Tanah Merah ferry terminal and Johor’s Desaru Coast.²²


This could seem unattractive for most travellers as Desaru Coast is a long car ride from Johor Bahru, Johor’s city centre. Fortunately, both the Johor and Singapore governments are exploring the possibility of a new service between Singapore’s Tuas and Johor’s Puteri Harbour.²³ The latter is close to tourist attractions like Legoland Malaysia and Sunway Big Box. These could also attract investments in Johor businesses, estimated to be between MYR 10 and 15 billion.²⁴


Benefits, Opportunities and Challenges


Existing and future transportation infrastructure complement one another, ultimately creating mutual benefits. Let us look at some of these benefits and opportunities, as well as the potential issues arising from them.


Business, Investments and Growth


The upcoming plans to build railway and ferry transportation across the border will greatly enhance overall transportation capacity. Besides, railways and ferries avoid one of the greatest challenges of travelling on the road – congestion. Together with the QR code-based clearance for immigration between both nations, individuals and businesses can look forward to enjoying shorter travel times. 


With greater connectivity and accessibility, a boom in investments and employment opportunities could be expected. Property value will also likely rise in the newly-developed areas in both Johor and Singapore. Johor’s Iskandar region and Singapore’s Jurong will mutually benefit from the construction of the HSR and the Tuas-Puteri ferry service.²⁵


However, railway projects can cause disruptions to the status quo. For instance, the Jurong Country Club was slated to make way for the Singapore terminus of the HSR. Some members have expressed disappointment towards these disruptions, illustrating a tradeoff between economic growth and leisure in Singapore.²⁶ This could be expected for other future developments.


Education and Employment Opportunities


Rural regions in Malaysia will also benefit from the increased accessibility to education and employment opportunities. This is especially important for Malaysians drawn to Singapore for work amid a weak Malaysian Ringgit and rising cost of living.²⁷ Similar to the HSR in Java, Indonesia, barriers to inter-state travel such as high travelling costs can be broken down.²⁸ In this case, the Johor-Singapore HSR will link the Malaysian states Selangor, Johor and Negeri Sembilan with capitals Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. At least 20 to 30 per cent of Malaysians live in Johor and Negeri Sembilan respectively.²⁹ 


Family, Friends and Festivals


Transnational families across the border will benefit significantly from having greater accessibility, enhanced efficiency, and a wider choice of transport modes. Despite the proliferation of telecommunication services, it is difficult to substitute physical contact for families and friends. During cultural festivals like Hari Raya and Qing Ming Festival, along with holiday seasons, heavy road traffic is inevitable.³⁰ Travelling time can reach up to at least six hours during festivals.³¹ 


Environmental Impacts and Viability


Even on normal weekdays, travelling times could go up to two hours.³² One can expect significant emissions as a result of travel via private motor vehicles. With these developments and alternatives, fewer emissions will be emitted.³³ 


However, the environmental benefit from lower emissions can be easily outweighed by other similar costs. The construction of large railway projects like the HSR is notorious for the ecological disruptions they cause. These include impacts on the local ecology, as well as animal movements and deforestation. The planned HSR passes through mostly undeveloped regions in Malaysia. Therefore, the HSR’s environmental impacts should be studied thoroughly to minimise ecological disruptions.


Furthermore, climate change could threaten the viability of such projects. Increased rainfall, higher temperatures and landslides will affect infrastructural integrity in the long term.³⁴ These environmental challenges create costs to maintain and ensure the safety of rail projects. 


Bilateral and International Cooperation


All in all, these developments have and will help to increase engagements between the governments on both sides. Singapore and Johor have collaborated extensively in the past and present. Each policy is a step toward deepening bilateral relations between Singapore and Johor, especially since both countries are neighbours with close ties among their inhabitants. More importantly, greater trust between both sides can help in overcoming bilateral issues in the future.


However, political instability and domestic issues in Malaysia could weaken the commitment to these large-scale projects. In 2018 and 2021, the HSR project was deferred and then terminated respectively. Such disruptions could hurt investor confidence in these projects. Fortunately, both Singapore and Malaysia share a friendly bilateral relationship, enabling both sides to reach a win-win agreement on such issues. It underscores the necessity of trust and relevant bilateral projects in areas ranging from transportation to people exchange.


Conclusion


Singapore and Johor’s relationship has come a long way. However, it has arguably not peaked. The recent MOU to establish the Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone hints at how our economic ties can be further strengthened.³⁵


The proximity between Singapore and Johor necessitates these policies for mutual growth and benefit. However, they can only succeed with support on both sides, as well as government commitment and investor confidence. These could only be sustained by goodwill and domestic stability.


Ultimately, these policies should serve the interests of people on both sides, enabling mutual benefit despite relative inequality across the Straits. These benefits in education, employment and economic activity will go a long way in improving the livelihoods of Malaysians and Singaporeans alike.


MAJU PE_2024_17_Across the Straits of Johor_ Shuttling between Neighbours
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.




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