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Thinking Aloud

Boost links with more than high-speed rail

Explore a 'two countries, one system' approach for the Iskandar Puteri region and Singapore

On Wednesday, I took a rare week day off and jaunted off to Johor with some family members. On the agenda: lunch, errands, shopping.

We were stuck in the Woodlands jam for an hour; then gave up and drove to Tuas to cross via the Second Link. Once in Johor, we drove eastwards across the Pasir Gudang highway to Johor Baru. Worried about getting caught in more jams, we headed back to Singapore at about 5pm, and made it home by 7pm.

In the end, we spent most of our day - about four hours in all - stuck in checkpoint jams. It wasn't unpleasant as we whiled away the time chit-chatting. But it was highly unproductive, as our commute had taken four hours for a journey that according to the GPS - which calculates just the distance you need to travel and the average speed of a car - should have taken only about half an hour each way.

But, of course, the GPS navigational system doesn't factor in the wait at immigration or tell you how long the traffic jam is at the checkpoints.

Just a day before, leaders of Singapore and Malaysia had inked an agreement to develop a high-speed rail linking both countries. A timetable was also agreed on: A joint tender for the project will open in the fourth quarter of 2017; and the tender will be awarded by the end of 2018. The rail is targeted to be running by the end of 2026, in 10 years' time. It will cut the journey from Singapore to Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur to about 90 minutes, compared with about four hours by car now.

Links between Singapore and its immediate northward neighbour Johor should improve: One prong of the high-speed rail (HSR) is a shuttle service between Singapore and Iskandar Puteri, the flagship development zone being developed in southern Johor.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Travel will be more seamless on the HSR, as travellers need to clear Customs and immigration of both countries only once - at the point of departure - not twice. This is because both countries will co-locate their Customs, immigration and quarantine facilities at the Jurong East terminus, at Iskandar Puteri, and Bandar Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

There are also plans for a rapid transit system to link Singapore's MRT system to Johor Baru.

Reducing the time and hassle of cross-border journeys will go a long way in making Johor an attractive hinterland for Singapore. The border is reputed to be the world's busiest international border. A Nikkei report in March last year, citing Malaysia's immigration data, said more than 250,000 use the Causeway daily: 58 per cent by motorcycle and 36 per cent by car.

A separate report in The Star, a Malaysian paper, on April 22 this year said 300,000 people walk across the border each day. The report quoted State Tourism, Trade and Consumerism Committee chairman Tee Siew Kiong as saying an average of 295,731 people cross the Johor Causeway and Second Link daily, excluding those who travel on "motorcycles, cars, vans, lorries and buses" - which presumably meant these people crossed on foot.

The numbers are likely to grow, as Singapore's economy continues to mature and costs rise, pushing manufacturing and logistics centres northwards and forcing Singapore residents to consider relocating to where housing and living costs are considerably cheaper.

Already, there is much talk of Iskandar Puteri serving as a wellness and retirement hinterland for Singapore. The two sovereign wealth funds, Temasek Holdings and Khazanah, aim to develop two wellness centres in Medini. Gleneagles, a private hospital group in Singapore, has opened a hospital, also in the Medini area.

The HSR will indeed be a game changer in relations between the two countries, as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said. It will link the two economies more closely.

Retiring in Johor will look more attractive, especially for those of us who already like the laidback vibe and delicious fare in their towns. (Disclosure: I own an apartment in Iskandar Puteri). But by itself, the rail link will not be enough to determine the success of Iskandar Puteri as Singaporeans' preferred hinterland.

Concerns about the high crime rate in Johor will deter retirees and families, while corruption and lack of transparency in bureaucratic rules will stop businesses from migrating. Instead, what will help will be more English-speaking staff, signs and establishments; better roads; brighter street lighting; clearer rules; and easier ways to pay fines (a portal with English instructions for credit card payments?) for municipal infringements.

In a word, to become a bit more like Singapore.

Iskandar Puteri can take off as Singapore's hinterland, benefiting both cities, if it can operate under a "two countries, one system" model.

This term is coined by Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon, in an essay he wrote on Singapore in 2065. In a whimsical essay in the book, Singapore 2065 edited by Professor Euston Quah, Mr Menon wrote a Budget speech supposedly delivered by the finance minister in 2065. In it, he envisages a Singapore with established hinterland links to support its "territorial economy" - that is, economy within the boundaries of Singapore itself. In 2065, Singapore has retirement villages in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Western Australia; and a diaspora of three million Singaporeans who live and work in the Asean free economic zones (from which 40 per cent of income is derived), China and India - all linked via sophisticated video and electronic networks.

In the fictitious speech, the finance minister added: "We will start preparations for the Olympic Games to be jointly hosted by Malaysia and Singapore in the Iskandar Economic Zone in 2068 - a fitting way to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Iskandar's 'Two Country/One System' model."

Mr Menon doesn't elaborate on what the "two countries,one system" model might look like in the essay, but it has fired my imagination since I read it over a year ago.

A "two countries, one system" model doesn't mean the two countries need to share their political systems or legal systems or education systems.

The economic system can be more interlinked, harmonising business procedures and taxes, for example. Social benefits for workers can be better integrated. People who live in one country and work in the other should be able to continue to enjoy their social security benefits.

For example, Singaporeans can already use their Medisave savings in Gleneagles Medini hospital, a 300-bed tertiary hospital that opened last December.

Why not extend subsidies for home care, and long-term residential care for the elderly, to facilities in Iskandar Puteri? Then Singaporeans can plan to live out our retirement there, and still be within a short 30-minute commute (with no checkpoint jams) from family members.

Iskandar Puteri, especially the area just north of the Second Link to Kota Iskandar, the Johor state government's administrative centre, has tree-lined, well-lit roads that remind me of Singapore. Unlike crowded, messy old-school Johor Baru, it has the makings of a masterplanned township, and can be branded as a town which combines the best of both countries: Singapore's orderliness and Malaysia's space and easy grace.

Singaporeans living on an island city-state of 719 sq km, that has 5.6 million people squeezed into it, may get claustrophobic and feel the pressure for space. It would be mind-expanding to be able to think of neighbouring Johor and Malaysia as part of our economic, and retirement, hinterland.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Boost links with more than high-speed rail '. Print Edition | Subscribe