On a recent road trip around Johor with stops and overnight stays to explore and experience several towns, I saw how less developed, smaller towns and municipalities like Muar and Batu Pahat, Johor were compared with our state capital city, Johor Bahru.
With its well preserved heritage buildings and pre-war shophouses, Muar, the historic town of Bandar Maharani, struck me as a laid-back and charming destination.
As in Kluang and Batu Pahat, Muar has its share of physical amenities like parks and green spaces, specifically those at Tanjung Emas Park on the banks of the Muar River.
In a chat with the hotel receptionist, I discovered that Muar no longer has any movie theatres and if they wanted to watch a current movie, they would drive to either Melaka or Batu Pahat. So their favourite destination for local outings was still Tanjung!
As I met Muarians; the name Muar folks like to call themselves, I discovered their deep sense of belonging and pride in its culture and heritage including the town’s economic development and security, a place where they grew up in and could raise a family.
Compared to JB which has expanded from Downtown JB to sprawling suburbs with neighbourhoods like Bandar Baru UDA, Bandar Baru Permas Jaya, Bandar Dato Onn, Bukit Indah and Iskandar Puteri, Muar remained virtually unchanged except for the broader one-way streets that traversed the town in a simple grid.
Driving around Muar was a breeze because the network of one-way roads took me around the same grid and after a few times, I began to recognise the roads and landmarks!
Raised to municipality status in 2001, public parking payment in Muar uses tear-off parking coupons that should be displayed on the car dashboard.
I however, noticed a parallel between most drivers in Muar and JB: they are either lazy, stingy or simply inconsiderate, because cars are also indiscriminately parked at non-designated areas. This bad attitude largely contributed to the traffic congestion.
In JB, I recently noticed that concerted effort is being made to keep drivers from parking their cars indiscriminately on the side of Jalan Ayer Molek, particularly the stretch in front of the Istana Gardens and JOTIC building.
However, recalcitrant drivers still persist on parking there and risk getting a City Council summons and fine for parking at an undesignated area. It appears that as long as there was no enforcement, these careless motorists would just park at their own whims and fancies and risk getting a summons.
Sidewalks, as its name describes, are pavements for pedestrians to walk on. But the sidewalks in front of the JB Courthouse are indiscriminately parked by rows of motorcycles to the point where it was impossible for pedestrians to walk!
It is also virtually impossible to walk comfortably in Downtown JB where most sidewalks are occupied by carelessly parked cars and motorbikes or portable tables from food stalls. This causes cracks, and its uneven surface pitted with litter and puddles from recent rain, are also safety hazards for pedestrians and wheelchair-bound people.
In Muar, when I walked around the network of roads near Jalan Petri on a weekend morning in search of my ‘satay pagi’ breakfast, I was delighted to walk on the clean and well-maintained sidewalks without having to avoid any obstructions.
I was impressed that sidewalks here were properly kept clear for pedestrian use and also neatly paved with tiles to aid visually-impaired pedestrians.
Walking back from a delicious satay pagi breakfast, I spied a crowd gathered at the mouth of a back-lane between rows of pre-war shophouses off Jalan Sulaiman.
Curious to see why, I walked closer and realised they were in a queue to buy freshly made ‘apam balik’ from a stall there. If this was also a breakfast food popular with the locals, I too must have a taste of this hot pancake.
So I placed my order with the busy vendor, who was working non-stop to serve the queue of customers. Prepared to wait for my order, I wandered down the back-lane and was stunned by how clean and uncluttered it was!
As far as the eye could see, the walls were unmarked and it appeared to be a safe path to walk. The road surface was properly tarred and its sides clearly painted while some property owners even maintained potted plants to decorate the rear of their buildings.
In another part of Muar, the wall of a back-lane off Jalan Abdullah, was the choice of a mural artist who created the Ferry Pier 3D mural, a 3-dimensional design featuring a real sampan to evoke memories of how early settlers had a livelihood with the Muar River.
This reminded me of how the back-lanes off Jalan Dato Teoh Siew Khor in Kluang, Johor, are also decorated with a series of creative wall mural in themes unique to their town: the iconic bat and their coffeeshop culture.
It also brought to mind the back-lanes in Downtown JB, a network of paths marked by graceful arches that were used by early settlers to walk to various parts of the old town.
Regretfully, the conditions of these city back-lanes are nowhere near those in Muar or Kluang.
Last year, some of these back-lanes were cleaned up for events in the annual Johor Bahru Arts Festival. But soon after the festival, the back-lanes reverted to their original state – unsightly and unsafe for pedestrians – a sight for sore eyes.
Speaking of unsafe, I’m seeing more signs that read: ‘Single Lady Drivers Only’, in mall and hotel carparks both in Kuala Lumpur and JB, where they are serious about providing designated parking spaces for unescorted ladies.
They acknowledge that ladies are often the victims of ruthless criminals and are now providing parking lots where ladies are less vulnerable in central and well-lighted areas.
While this is yet another positive step towards a more caring and inclusive community, the reality is that crime is rampant and criminals may even be lurking in the carparks of malls and hotels.