The RM14b reason Singapore isn’t as desperate as Johor to reopen its border

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Like it or not, Malaysia is at the mercy of Singapore.

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More than 500,000 people travel across the Johor-Singapore Causeway every day, making it one of the busiest overland border crossings in the region. An average of 300,000 Malaysians cross the border daily to work in Singapore, lured by a favourable exchange rate. At today’s currency rate, it’s like earning Australian dollar (or US dollar in 2013).

On weekdays, the commute from Johor Bahru across the one km-long Causeway bridge takes about one to two hours. On weekends and public holidays, the same journey could be a nightmare. Still, Malaysians willingly wake up before dawn to beat the rush-hour jam and wait in traffic. About 145,000 vehicles pass through Johor Bahru’s Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex daily.

Some even crossed the bridge on foot, and it was normal to see pedestrians making a mad dash across the road with motorcycles and cars whizzing past. They had no choice as the jam was extremely bad, partly because customs officers would turn up late and not open counters on time. Most have seen how officers were busy playing with their phones on duty, holding up the immigration queue.

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That was before the Coronavirus. The border, or the gateway for Malaysians to earn triple what they could earn in their homeland, has been closed since March 18, 2020. Four days ago (Sept 24), National Recovery Council chairman Muhyiddin Yassin said both countries were discussing to recognize each other’s Covid-19 vaccination certificate to facilitate border crossings.

Muhyiddin claimed his counterpart Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has agreed in principle about the recognition. But PM Lee was just dragging his feet and has no intention to “fully” recognize Malaysia’s Covid vaccination. Muhyiddin should stop hallucinating that he could score some brownie points in fixing one of the biggest economic and unemployment problems that he created.

Back in April, Muhyiddin, who was still the prime minister, had planned to personally visit Singapore to discuss the prospect of reopening the border. Equally eager and desperate to reopen the Johor-Singapore Causeway was the Johor state government, who wished that it could be done in June. But even after Muhyiddin had resigned, the discussion process is still ongoing.

In fact, as early as June 2020, both governments talked about cross-border travel through a Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) and a Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) to address the needs of different groups of cross-border travellers. Heck, the clueless Muhyiddin had even hinted that his government was considering opening Malaysia to international tourism by the end of August last year.

In his speech at the 36th ASEAN Summit in June 2020, then-PM Muhyiddin desperately called on fellow countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for “travel bubbles” to counter the economic slump caused by Covid-19. Hilariously, Singapore has opened travel bubbles last month to residents from Hong Kong, Macao, Germany, and even Brunei – but not to Malaysia.

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If Muhyiddin still did not get the message behind Singapore’s travel bubble that deliberately excluded Malaysia, then he is stupider than he looks. Do you think PM Lee gives a hoot about what Muhyiddin says now that he is no longer a premier, when the Singapore leader did not even respect or trust what Muhyiddin said when he was still a prime minister?

Some politicians and so-called local professors made some silly comments that cross-border travel should resume as soon as possible because Singapore needs Malaysian workers. Exactly what do you think Singapore has been doing for the last 18 months since the border was closed on March 18, 2020? Do you see their economy crumbles due to lack of Malaysian workers?

In reality, Malaysia, especially Johor, needs Singapore investments more than the island needs Malaysian workers. Singaporeans are big spenders, thanks to their purchasing power as a result of the stronger Singapore dollar (or the super weak Malaysian Ringgit), and among the biggest group of tourists visiting many states in Malaysia, helping to grow the tourism sector.

If you have relatives or friends currently working in Singapore, just ask them whether the government there is desperate for Malaysian workers. On the contrary, the Singapore government could not have been happier for the last 18 months that the border was closed. The country actually enjoyed a booming economy due to economic overflow as a result of the border closure.

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Yes, the local economy, including petrol stations, was doing a roaring business as residents could not cross over to Johor and other Malaysian states to spend. Singaporeans, who used to exchange dollar for Ringgit before splashing their cash on groceries in Johor, are forced to spend their money locally. The business has been so good that supermarket employees received up to 16 months’ bonus.

Sheng Siong, for example, saw its net profit for its nine months ended Sept 30, 2020 jumped 83.3% to S$107 million from a year ago. In recognition of the company’s extremely good performance, the supermarket gave away 4.68 months’ bonus for part-time staff, 8.36 months’ bonus for general staff, while assistant managers and above received up to 15.72 months’ bonus.

But locking Singaporeans was just part of the story. While the Johor state government said more than 100,000 Malaysians are still in Singapore since the closure of the border, Malaysian Workers Association of Singapore (Pemas) president S Dayalan said the number is higher – 215,000 Malaysians. They refused to return home to Malaysia for fear of losing the jobs that “pay triple”.

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And because they can’t or refuse to return to Malaysia, they have to spend in Singapore. Based on the assumption each worker spends S$1,500 a month, an estimated RM14 billion would be spent in a year by the Malaysian workers there. So, instead of Singaporeans boosting Johor economy, it was Malaysian workers who have helped stimulate the economy of Singapore.

Clearly, there is no compelling reason for Singapore to reopen the border and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Thanks to Covid-19, Malaysian workers cannot benefit from earning Singapore dollar, but spending in Malaysia Ringgit. For the first time in decades, the Singapore dollar outflow to neighbouring Malaysia has been stopped significantly.

But can you blame the Singapore government when it was the clueless and incompetent Malaysian government that has mishandled the pandemic? To cling to power, the power-hungry Muhyiddin had used every trick, including a State of Emergency, and even allowed the virus to escalate. Earning Singapore dollar aside, Malaysians prefer to stay there because of the never-ending Covid cases and deaths here.

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When Singapore showed as early as April 2020 that migrant workers living in dormitories had to be screened and quarantined, Malaysia Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said – “We are learning from Singapore, our migrant workers, we are embarking on a big scale screening of our migrant workers”. But it has remained as empty promises and rhetoric.

The Sabah state election, which became the epicentre of the “Third Wave” Covid-19 since September 2020 due to Muhyiddin’s lust for power, never actually ended even till today. Under the leadership of Muhyiddin and his deputy-turn-premier Ismail Sabri, Malaysia has successfully accumulated over 2.2 million Coronavirus cases and close to 26,000 deaths.

While the government, particularly Muhyiddin, has issued a chest-thumping declaration that the country has the highest daily inoculation in the world, Johor is still seventh from the bottom for vaccinations in the country. Only 56.3% of people in Johor are fully vaccinated. Even then, Johor Sultan Ibrahim had to complain until foaming at the mouth before vaccination in the state improved.

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The exorbitant cost of quarantine – roughly S$3,000 (RM9,300) – on both sides of the border under the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) also discourages many Malaysians from returning. The endless policy flip-flops and SOP U-turns practised by the Malaysian government have instilled fear and doubt that once they come back, there’s no guarantee they could return to work in Singapore.

Johor’s economy shrank by 4.6% last year instead of the forecast of 5.2% to 5.5% growth. It means the state has lost close to 10% of the economic pie under the brilliant Muhyiddin leadership. Without the Singapore tourism dollars, the state’s ailing retail and tourism sectors saw many of the 500 hotels shuttered. Dozens of malls and hundreds, if not thousands, of shop lots have closed down.

The 18-month lockdown and border shutdown have badly affected the business owners in Johor, especially Johor Bahru, the district that accounts for half of the state’s 153 business complexes and 44% of 90,000 shop lots. In addition, 90% of small-and-medium businesses (SMEs) are stagnant because of the repeated lockdowns and border closure.

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According to ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean statutory board and research institution, the Covid-19 period is the “worst in Johor since the 1987 financial crisis”. Singapore does not need to think too hard how to reject Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccination certificates. The empty syringe scandal and fake vaccination certificates are some excuses to continue shutting down the border.

Singapore also knew about the exploitation or manipulation of Covid-19 data in Malaysia. The newly appointed Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has admitted that the Covid death rate was due to backlogs in data collection. It means neither data on daily infections, nor death toll was accurate all this while but has been manipulated to serve the political agenda of Muhyiddin (and probably Ismail Sabri).

The two main vaccines used in Singapore are developed by Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna. It can question the quality of Sinovac vaccine, which, instead of direct import from China, has instead been awarded to Pharmaniaga – a crony company of UMNO – to do relabelling and rebottling for the sole purpose of profiteering. Indeed, Singapore has a truckload of reasons to not reopen the Johor-Singapore Causeway.

Like it or not, Malaysia is at the mercy of Singapore. There’s nothing turtle-egg PM Ismail Sabri or power-hungry Muhyiddin Yassin can do if PM Lee Hsien Loong decides against reopening the border. Singapore will most likely use its neighbour’s desperation to extract some lucrative concessions before even considering recognizing partial of Malaysian Covid vaccination certificates. – Finance Twitter