Reflections on the Impact of the ‘New Normal’ on Singapore-Johor Bahru Ties

Kevin is a cultural anthropologist and adjunct faculty at the School of Global Studies at Thammasat University, Thailand. He can be reached at mudoshin@hotmail.com

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Pre MCO scene at the CIQ with returning Malaysians and residing Singaporeans (Photo by Kyaizee Mohd)

It has been nearly three months since the Malaysian government imposed its Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18th March 2020 and it’s now in the Recovery MCO period. Singapore’s so-called Circuit Breaker (CB) followed suit on 7th April 2020. As a result, the two Causeways that have connected the island-state to the Malaysian peninsula through Johor Bahru have largely fallen silent. While it is understandable that the respective lockdowns were inevitable in order to contain the outbreak of the COVID-19 in both countries, it is also apparent that there have been immense economic and social costs.

Prior to the lockdowns on both sides, the two Causeways have been one of the most crowded and busiest border crossings in the world, where up to 300,000 persons travel across it daily. For many Malaysians, Singapore is a sought after destination to earn a salary that is far more attractive than what they would get back home. This is due to exchange rates where the Singaporean dollar is virtually three times the value of the Malaysian Ringgit, which naturally translates into a better quality of life. An estimated number of over 400,000 Malaysians either live in Singapore or commute back and forth for at least five days a week, mostly from Johor Bahru (JB). They are Singapore’s largest transnational workforce, but are probably the most ‘invisible’ in its society due to similarities in language and ways of life.

Similarly, Singapore needs them just as much because Malaysians also form part of the industries that are crucial to everyday life; occupations that many Singaporeans now eschew. They include hairdressers, plumbers, carpenters, renovation contractors, factory workers, cooks, sales personnel, home movers, delivery personnel, air-conditioner technicians, janitors, car mechanics, bus drivers, ‘kopitiam’ staff, confinement nannies – and the list goes on.

At the same time, what is often less highlighted are also the thousands of Singaporeans who own homes in Johor Bahru, with some having made the decision to live there while commuting to work in Singapore during the weekdays. Although exact statistics are not clear, it has been estimated that there are up to 5000 or more Singaporean families living across the two Causeways. For many such Singaporeans, the socially constructed national borders are neither far less relevant nor act as an obstacle, as the distinction between what is home and foreign has been irrevocably blurred. The fact that there are several hundred or more Singaporeans enrolled at the various international universities located at EduCity in Iskandar Malaysia should also not be lost on us. JB is also a well-known destination for many Singaporeans on weekends, who travel across in the tens of thousands for access to greater affordability on groceries, dining, furniture, car-washing services, and chiropractic care, traditional Thai massage, along with medical and dental care.

Functional needs aside, many Singaporeans cross the border to JB to take a break from the spatial and social constraints of their island-state that is often perceived as too regulated and uptight for some. Interestingly, while the vast majority of Malaysians who traverse the two Causeways to Singapore to seek better income, the Singaporeans who either live in JB or are regular travellers do so because JB, has emerged as a viable alternative to the “Singapore narrative” of success. JB, therefore, is not only more cost-friendly, but has given Singaporeans a real option beyond their own society, which in recent decades, has become increasingly demanding in terms of expenses, work-life balance and its sheer pace of life. For many working-class Singaporeans earning modest salaries, JB is preferred when it comes to a convenient family holiday at attractions like LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort or even a weekend stay at KSL Resort as opposed to the exorbitant choices back home on Sentosa or Marina Bay Sands.

Beyond important concerns regarding the economy and jobs, it is also important, therefore, to recognise that the ties between both sides of the border transcend political differences. A closer inspection will reveal the thousands who have family on both sides of the border. Sizable numbers of Malaysians and Singaporeans have intermarried, or have families that extend back several decades even prior to the political separation of 1965. All the same, new bonds are still being formed between younger generations today through friendships in schools and at the workplace.

The bustling Causeway that snakes from JB all the way across to Singapore Woodlands Checkpoint (Photo by Kyaizee Mohd)

Because of the lockdowns, many who possess such ties now feel the strain of enforced separation. There was a report of a Singaporean taxi driver who resorted to working and sleeping in his car because his family and home were in JB. Concurrently, there was another report of a Malaysian who chose to remain in Singapore to keep his job, while separated from his wife and two daughters indefinitely. A story of Malaysian mothers choosing to remain in Singapore during the lockdown but were also sending their own breast milk back to their infant children in JB is another remarkable revelation that could only have occurred due to the lockdowns. The growing stories of such separation, anxiety and insecurity exact a cost that is not always easy to measure through the perspective and language of the economy.

While it is apparent that negotiations between the governments of both sides have already begun, all possible solutions to the current state of things should be considered. In particular, it is important to recognise the symbiotic relationship that Singapore and Johor Bahru have. Attempts to interpret the problem as either a Singaporean or a Malaysian problem may not be as helpful. This is because all forms of lockdown – be they MCOs or CBs – are not long-term solutions. There are not only economic costs, but also social and emotional ones. Of course, this certainly does not mean that the COVID-19 crisis should be taken lightly, as it has already claimed thousands of lives worldwide. The objective here is to work towards strategies that can manage outbreaks effectively while enabling liveability – sustainable physical and mental well-being – for persons with close ties in both countries. How persons can navigate themselves safely through public spaces within and beyond the borders of a country is a possible way to begin.  Whether we like it or not, the fates of our two countries are inevitably entangled, in spite of disputes on territorial boundaries or the cost of water. A bilateral and coordinated approach undertaken by both governments is required if it is true that the COVID-19 coronavirus and its subsequent mutations are going to be around for the long haul.

Labels like ‘New Normal’ or ‘post-COVID era’ are some of the recent terms used by politicians and journalists, but it should not simply justify the current status quo in light of the challenges that have resulted from it. Gone, for now, are the some of the uninhibited forms of large-scale interactions that led to dangerous outbreaks in recent weeks, but this should not lead us to abandon the social and emotional ties between people that makes us human. No matter how efficient forms of technology such as Zoom or Skype can be, they can never entirely replace the embrace of a loved one. So there is really nothing normal about the ‘New Normal’. To some, the reality of these lockdowns may only be the reports one reads about or the speeches one hears all too often in the media. To many others, however, they have to live with the consequences of an uncertain future every single day.

**The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of the editorial board.

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